Take Your Marks: Defensive Outlook

The guys break down new coordinator Ted Roof's unit heading into the 2012 season. Who will star? Who will emerge? Who must step up? See what they have to say.

Welcome to the latest installment of Take Your Marks, the occasional series in which FOS staffers Mark Brennan and Mark Harrington discuss and debate Penn State football. In this edition, they tackle the Nittany Lion defense heading into the summer.

What do you see as the potential strengths and weaknesses of Ted Roofs new “multiply aggressive” defense?

Mark Brennan: Expect the Penn State defense to make and give up more big plays. As good as Tom Bradley's unit was at times the last few years, his bend-but-don't-break philosophy also limited big plays for the Lion defense. Penn State has not scored a defensive touchdown in 28 games covering three seasons and has not gotten a defensive TD from its secondary since the 2007 Outback Bowl. Put another way, PSU has had a total of two defensive touchdowns in the last three seasons. As defensive coordinator at Auburn over that same period, Roof saw his troops generate 10 TDs. Bradley's style led to impressive points-against numbers in the Big Ten. But his defenses of late generally failed to make big plays in the clutch and struggled when facing top QBs out of conference -- think Case Keenum (532 yards, 3 TDs, no picks), Greg McElroy (16 of 24, 2 TDs, no picks) and Mark Sanchez (413 yards, 4 TDs, no picks). It will be interesting to see if Roof's high-risk/high-reward approach of more blitzing and press coverage can be effective considering the lack of depth in the secondary and an offense that figures to struggle to score points until it gets its bearings under new head coach Bill O'Brien.

Mark Harrington: Given the variety and aggression Roof is known for I expect to see increased pressure from the front four and perhaps some added blitzing looks from the linebackers. As you point out, this is a high-risk/high-reward approach, so fans will have to get comfortable with the potential to give up big plays from quarterbacks who can make their reads, adjust and deliver on those shifts. I do think PSU has the personnel to run this defensive front. Toss in legacy coaches Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden and it seems that the up-front units are in solid shape heading into the season. The main question is how L.J. and R.V. adjust their approaches to player development to fit with Roof's scheme and approach.

What is the biggest defensive concern heading into the summer?

Mark Harrington: Hands down the secondary. The unit is shallow in terms of depth so an injury here or an off-field issue there could really waylay the unit. That is not to say there is not significant pockets of talent. Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos, Derrick Thomas and Malcolm Willis all have shown flashes of brilliance in their coverage skills. Beyond that you start to see inexperience in the personnel. One curious aspect of the depth chart released in early June was that Amos was at corner ahead of Thomas. I would think given the issues the unit faces that John Butler would have to shift Amos to safety and give Thomas the initial nod at corner.

Mark Brennan: It is difficult to argue over concerns with the defensive backfield. The 2012 NFL Draft -- in which none of Penn State's four multiple-year starting DBs available were selected -- was proof that it is an area that has slipped in recent years. But fans should also be worried about injury problems. Two key defensive players -- linebacker Mike Mauti and defensive end Pete Massaro -- have both endured two ACL tears (and long recoveries). They are two of the unit's strongest leaders and, when healthy, are both All-Big Ten caliber players. If they are both back at full strength in 2012, the defense will be that much stronger.

Who will be the defensive MVP?

Mark Brennan: I know people are looking at DT Jordan Hill as a possible first-round draft pick. And he will be extremely important to the defense. To me, however, LB Gerald Hodges should be the most dangerous weapon on this side of the ball, especially as Roof looks to force the action. Hodges is a solid run-stopper (he led PSU with 106 tackles last season), is fast enough to drop into coverage and can be an outstanding pass rusher if he refines his technique a bit. Don't be surprised to see him break the touchdown drought by the Penn State defense.

Mark Harrington: I agree Hill is the obvious choice, but I am going with DE Sean Stanley. Stanley started seven games last season, seeing action in all 13. He grabbed 30 tackles (20 solo), 4.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, three forced fumbles (one recovered) and an interception. I think the senior realizes that this is his time to shine. He's been amped about the unleashed approach of Roof's defense and if he can own the corner he could really have an impressive year pressuring the pocket.

Which defensive player (regardless of class) will surprise people?

Mark Harrington: I'll go with DE Deion Barnes. The redshirt year has said to have paid dividends for him. He's mature, has a better grasp of his role and has developed into a great pass-rusher. Granted he's young, and is behind the returning Massaro, but even with that Johnson is sure to get him into the rotation and leverage his speed and power. The question is how many snaps he gets. But if he remotely lives up to the early assessments he should make an early impact.

Mark Brennan: I was going to go out on a limb and say cornerback Curtis Drake. Good thing I didn't. He's been booted from the program. So I'll tab another DB - the sophomore Amos. He spent time in the spring playing corner (where he was a backup last year) and safety (his more natural position). He is athletic, has a nose for the ball and can hit. Expect the staff to station him at one of the two safety spots this fall (I don't buy the off-season depth chart, where he is listed as corner), along with the talented redshirt junior Willis. Safety is one area on defense where, despite losing two starters, the Nittany Lions should be better in 2012. Depth will be a serious problem at safety, though.

It is now or never for which defensive player?

Mark Brennan: Defensive tackle James Terry. Penn State has two very good starting DTs in Hill and DaQuan Jones. Redshirt sophomore Kyle Baublitz has been shifted over from DE and seems to have the size to make plays. And help is on the way from the Class of 2012. But Johnson likes to rotate at least four players at tackle, and that's where Terry comes in. Now 22, the fifth-year senior has played in 29 career games and he has very little to show for it -- 21 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss and no fumble recoveries. This is a great opportunity to salvage what has otherwise been a ho-hum career. If he doesn't pick up the pace, expect a couple of the newcomers (from a pool of Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia, Austin Johnson and Jamil Pollard) to blow past him on the depth chart.

Mark Harrington: Massaro. Granted, he's been plagued by injuries, but this is presumably it for the speedy, aggressive end. Two seasons ago he pulled down 37 tackles and 3.5 sacks and showed flashes of brilliance, but another ACL injury put his show on hold. In the spring he was been back in contact and worked his way back into the starting lineup. But questions remain about his durability and whether he is able to get back to that edge rusher many expected him to be. The signs are looking positive, but there's a lot of folks waiting to see where he ends up. If he can pull it together and remotely get back to where he was, he and Stanley could be a lethal combo from the ends.

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