Where the season opener against Syracuse is concerned, Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler wants his guys to start fast, but not too fast. He wants them to be ready for the bread-and-butter of the Orangemen, but also be ready to adjust.
Other than that, it figures to be a pretty easy day for the Nittany Lions, who face the Orange on Saturday at 3:30 at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
In a wide-ranging conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Butler – who succeeded Ted Roof as defensive boss after serving as secondary coach last year – said the first order of business on Saturday will be stopping a running game that features Jerome Smith, a 6-foot, 226-pound mauler, and Prince-Tyson Gulley, a 5-10, 190-pound speedster.
Smith rushed for 1,171 yards last year (5.2 a carry). Gulley gained 830, and 5.3 a pop. They are, Butler said, "probably two of the best running backs we're going to see all year long."
"That's going to be the story of the game," he said. "If we can't stop the run game, it's going to be a long day."
But it's not the whole story. Like PSU, the Orange have yet to announce who their starting quarterback might be. Could be Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen. Could be redshirt sophomore Terrel Hunt. That has left Butler and Co. with a "wide volume of stuff" to prepare for, and the new coordinator expects that adjustments will have to be made after kickoff.
"In a game like this, you've got to adjust," he said."We'll have to do some things in the game to stop what they're doing, that we might not have practiced a whole lot."
At least, he said, the entire defense is not starting at Square One, as was the case last season. This year, there was a comfort level at the beginning of preseason drills.
"Instead of spending 20 minutes to install something (in practice)," he said, "you spend 10."
And the players, instead of learning their roles, have been more apt to spend their time refining them. That allows them to play faster, and Butler talked hopefully about establishing the game's tempo Saturday – about dictating to the Orange, as opposed to the opposite.
But there is always the uncertainty about different wrinkles, and the differing skill sets of the two quarterbacks involved.
"There's a game within a game being played," Butler said."That's why it's important to have smart players, so they can adapt as the game adapts."
He talked about the importance of having "concept learners" as opposed to "memorization learners" – i.e., guys who understand the overall scheme and can think on their feet, as opposed to guys who grasp only the minute aspects of their jobs.
Butler also mentioned that while he is not an avid reader, he has read a book about Patton, as well as some articles about other military figures. He noted that quite often in battle the best-laid plans go awry, and people are forced to do things on the fly.
"When the rubber meets the road is when you've got to perform," he said."A lot of times in games, things change."
That happened in last year's season finale against Wisconsin. Butler said the defensive coaches thought they had a bead on the power-running Badgers, only to see them come out and score touchdowns on each of their first two drives.
"We had to scrap the game plan and make an adjustment," he said, "and obviously it worked for the last eight drives."
Wisconsin only had one more TD the rest of the day, and the Lions pulled out a dramatic 24-21 overtime victory.
Butler can only hope that the adjustment period is accelerated on Saturday.
"Once we see what they're doing, we'll have an answer," he said,"but it's going to take us a while to figure it out."
Hull, who spent most of last season coming off the bench, finished with 58 tackles, second-most among returning players to middle linebacker Glenn Carson, who had 85. Hull also had four sacks, an interception and returned a fumble for a touchdown, leading Butler to say that "at times he was playing as well as" departed starters Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti.
"Probably in hindsight he should have played a little more," Butler said. "I expect him to have an outstanding year this year and be one of the focal points of the defense.… If we can recruit a bunch of Mike Hulls, this defense is going to be pretty good at Penn State the next couple years."
Amos is listed as a starting safety, but will line up "all over the place," Butler said. That means that at times Amos will see action as the third cornerback, and at times be employed as a nickelback in the box on obvious passing downs, where he can presumably blitz or cover.
Barnes had six sacks last year and was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but was not always stout against the run. Butler said he has worked at it, but exam time comes in two days.
"He's going to get a lot of run action his way," Butler said."I hope the improvement he's shown in the weight room and the practice field translates. We'll see on Saturday."
There are question marks, to be sure. Either Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson will open at defensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman is listed as a starter at outside linebacker, but Ben Kline will see action there, too. And Malcolm Willis and Ryan Keiser figure to split time at safety.
"Both are probably going to play a lot," Butler said,"especially when we play Adrian at cornerback."
Then there are the two new starting cornerbacks, Jordan Lucas and converted wide receiver Trevor Williams. They stand 6-foot, 192 and 6-foot-1, 189, respectively, the kind of size the Lions are seeking at that position. But they are very green.
Butler said they moved Williams from offense because he is "a very serious kid, responsible, independently motivated to improve."
"This was not a rash move," he said. "This was something we looked at for a period of time."
As for Lucas, he played some last year. But not a lot.
Butler said he is "cautiously optimistic" about Lucas and Williams, while allowing, once again, that they will have to prove they can perform on a big stage.
"When there's 80,000 watching you play, it's a little different than practice," he said.
He also believes there will be "tremendous improvement" on the part of the new cornerbacks over time.
Surely, though, they will be tested Saturday. As will everyone else.