Nittany Notes: Preseason Progress (Defense)

The latest news and notes from the defensive side of the ball as Penn State eyes Saturday's opener against Syracuse.

News and notes from the Penn State defense as the Syracuse game nears.

DEFENSIVE LINE NOTES: The primary defensive tackle rotation appears to be set, with returning starter DaQuan Jones leading the way. Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson and converted defensive end Kyle Baublitz are fighting for the other position, but both will play a lot.

Jones missed most of spring practice with back problems but is 100 percent now. After bulking up to more than 330 pounds in the winter, he is now down to 315 and intends to get to 310 in time for the opener. The idea is to get quicker because the defense as a whole is trying to play faster.

Johnson has been consistently turning heads in camp. He actually practiced with the regulars while redshirting last season just in case injuries became a problem at DT, so his emergence has not been a surprise. He is big (6-foot-4, 302) and quick, and appears to have the best upside of all the DTs on the roster.

Redshirt sophomore Carl Nassib has been a pleasant surprise at DE, where the team really needs depth following the season-ending injury to Brad Bars. At 6-6, 245, Nassib is basically the same size as redshirt freshman Evan Schwan. It appears they'll be fighting for some of the same snaps.

Yes, Nassib is the brother of former Syracuse QB and current New York Giant Ryan Nassib.

That said, the starting DEs are (no surprise) returning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes and C.J. Olanyian. We've also heard Anthony Zettel and true freshman Garrett Sickels have had good camps at end, but we're guessing Sickels will redshirt.

Expect D-line coach Larry Johnson to rotate a lot of players up front, especially if the weather is hot on game day for the opener against Syracuse. Head coach Bill O'Brien has warmed up to Johnson's style of hitting opposing offensive lines with waves of D-linemen.

LINEBACKER NOTES: The starters have been set here since the winter: Glenn Carson at Mike, Nyeem Wartman at Will and Mike Hull at Sam. Though Hull is replacing an NFL player in Gerald Hodges, don't expect any drop-off. He is strong and fast. He is actually a better natural football player than Hodges, who often ran himself out of plays last season.

All eyes have been on the backups. Redshirt freshman Gary Wooten is making slow progress at the Mike. He was a high school defensive end and has not played in an actual game since his senior season (2010). He has great size (6-2, 240) and strength, but must improve playing in space. He also has to get a better handle on play-calling if he hopes to take over once the senior Carson moves on. If Carson is injured this year, Wartman will more than likely have to take over the play-calling (which he can do from OLB), as he was a Mike as a true frosh.

Redshirt sophomore Ben Kline was expected to compete with Wartman for an OLB spot but missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury. He appeared to be full-go at the start of camp but hurt the shoulder again during what was supposed to be a non-contact drill early on. That knocked him out of action for an extended period, but he recently returned to the field wearing a red no-contact jersey. Barring further issues, Kline will play this season, but will probably have to wear a harness on the shoulder. It remains to be seen how long it takes him to get back into football shape, though.

True freshman Brandon Bell has seen second-team reps at OLB throughout camp. He reportedly has been solid against the run but must improve in coverage. He also has to work on his conditioning, which is common among rookies.

Meanwhile, teammates talked up run-on Adam Cole in the spring. Tuesday, head coach Bill O'Brien pointed to Cole as a linebacker who has played well in camp. Cole is small (5-11, 219), so it is difficult to envision him being a regular at LB. But he should be able to do some good things on special teams.

SECONDARY NOTES: Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas have adjusted nicely in their new roles as starting cornerbacks. Williams is said to be a natural playmaker. Our money is on him ending the long streak (dating back to the Jan. 1, 2007 Outback Bowl) of no PSU DB scoring a touchdown on an interception or fumble return. Da'Quan Davis will also rotate in with the first team.

Overall, the depth in the secondary is far superior to last season, especially at safety. Even with Adrian Amos recently missing time with a minor injury (he's back now), the staff still had veterans Malcolm Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Ryan Keiser at their disposal. And though he's seen most of his reps with the second team, Malik Golden has turned heads with “some pretty awesome interceptions.”

Finally, for all of the talk of Obeng-Agyapong and/or Amos possibly playing some OLB this season, only the former has taken any reps at the position in training camp. And they've been limited. Amos has moved closer to the line in nickel situations, but that's really not the same as actually playing LB.

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