Strength in Numbers

Veteran safety Malcolm Willis points to improved depth as a strength of the Penn State secondary. Brushing up on technique is now the key for the younger defensive backs.

There are now more boots on the ground in Penn State's secondary, an Achilles heel last year. More depth. More experience. And the defensive backs' hope is that they will now be one step ahead of where they were as a result.

Last year, that group -- which featured four new starters and had virtually no seasoned reserves -- managed exactly three of the team's 10 interceptions.

“That's not in the back of our minds,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning. “It's in the forefront.”

Willis went on to say that making plays on the ball has been “a point of emphasis” during spring practice, which concludes with Saturday's Blue-White Game. That it's something he wants to do, something everybody wants to do.

“That's going to help the team win more games this fall,” he said.

Willis is one of three returning starters in the defensive backfield, and a guy who has willingly assumed a leadership role. Fellow safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong also returns -- though he has been limited to non-contact work this spring, after undergoing offseason surgery on his right shoulder -- and Adrian Amos figures to again start at cornerback and see some time at safety in the nickel.

“He could probably play linebacker if they asked him to,” Willis said. “He's a physical specimen.”

The replacement for the departed Stephon Morris at the other corner is yet to be determined, but unlike last year, there are plenty of options. Willis said that to date, Jordan Lucas and Da'Quan Davis, both of whom saw time off the bench as freshmen in 2012, have run with the first string. So too has redshirt freshman Trevor Williams, who last year played wide receiver.

The other reinforcements include freshman cornerbacks Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith, who enrolled in January. Redshirt freshman Malik Golden also moved from wide receiver to defense; he is getting a look at safety. Junior safety Ryan Keiser is also available.

It is a big change from last year, when everyone was new (including the coaching staff, of course) and there were bound to be problems. Take last year's opener against Ohio.

“We weren't used to playing with each other,” Willis said.

It showed. One of that game's pivotal plays was the would-be interception that glanced off Obeng-Agyapong's hands and went for a third-quarter touchdown, as the Bobcats came from behind to win. And the next week another secondary foul-up at Virginia set the Cavaliers up for the winning touchdown late in the game.

But, Willis said, “As the season progressed we got used to each other and learned each other's habits.”

Now they appear to have enough bodies, and enough experience. They also have a new defensive coordinator in John Butler, who replaces Ted Roof (now at Georgia Tech) but will continue to oversee the cornerbacks. And there is a new safeties coach in Anthony Midget.

There are, as a result, some new wrinkles.

“As far as the nickel and dime, we're able to do some different things on defense this year,” Willis said, “because we have more numbers. That allows us to match up with teams that go more spread and things like that. We weren't able to do that last year.”

Willis is more than willing to do his part.

“I take pride in being known as a leader,” he said.

He has seen Williams and Golden react “very well” to the transition to defense. They are, Willis said, “making a lot of plays and learning a lot. … They're asking a lot of questions, which means they want to learn even more.”

Questions, he said, that are mostly about technique. “For those guys,” he said, “I'm just an extra source.”

Willis has also seen the two Smiths (who are unrelated) “hit the ground running.”

“They have mental and physical ability,” Willis said. “They just have to put them both together, and everything will come from there.”

The group as a whole seems well on its way to putting the pieces together. And there are a lot more of them than there used to be.

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