Penn State entered spring practice without much drama when it came to settling on a starting secondary.
Despite losing 2015 starters Trevor Williams (CB) and Jordan Lucas (S) to graduation, the Nittany Lions returned five defensive backs who saw significant playing time last season. So, barring injury, expect things to break down something like this…
Malik Golden: When a shoulder surgery knocked Lucas out of the final three games of 2015, the veteran backup Golden was promoted to the first team at strong safety. Golden had 23 tackles in those final three games. He’s always been terrific in run support. They key now is improving in coverage. He has emerged as a leader in the secondary this spring.
Marcus Allen: As a sophomore last season, Allen did not quite live up to the promise he showed as a rookie in 2014. That may have had something to do with a nagging right shoulder injury, even if he refused to admit it. But now he’s back as a versatile free safety who can move up closer to the line in nickel and dime packages. Allen is quicker than he is fast, so, like Golden, improving in coverage is a priority.
Grant Haley: Haley started the final 11 games of 2015 at boundary corner, but his versatility came in handy as he was often able to move inside in nickel and dime situations. He has played a lot of football the past two seasons, so the fact that he has missed a lot of contact this spring while dealing with an unspecified injury is not a big deal. In fact, it is allowing a couple of backups to get more first-team work (more on this later). We’re betting he sees most of his action over at field corner once completely healthy.
John Reid: As a true freshman last season, the cerebral and athletic Reid started two games (when Haley was hurt) and played in all but one. Late in the season, he would take over as the boundary corner when Haley moved inside in the nickel and dime. Neither Haley nor Reid has great size, which could cause some trouble against teams with very big receivers. But again, both are extremely athletic and smart.
FIRST-TEAM NICKEL BACK
Troy Apke: The super quick and fast Apke is running second team at free safety. Though he is not technically a nickel or dime back, he does come onto the field when the Lions go into those packages and Allen moves up closer to the line of scrimmage. Now a junior, Apke has been a solid player but has yet to emerge as the playmaker his physical skills (4.41 40, 4.01 NFL shuttle, 10-6 broad) would seem to portend. He has not logged any interceptions and only has one career pass breakup to his credit. He’ll have every chance to improve on his numbers this season.
Campbell was Penn State’s No. 2 field corner last season before missing the final five games with an unspecified injury. He is back to full strength now, and has had at least one pick six this spring. However, the staff has gotten on him for not being as physical in run support as he needs to be. But his athleticism can’t be questioned. He holds the team record in the vertical (39 inches) and broad jump (10-10).
The extra first-team reps this spring have been vital for Oruwariye, who arrived at PSU with raw skills and only saw the field in five games last season. He has run a 4.53 40, which is great for a 6-1, 205-pounder.
Both Campbell and Oruwariye are clearly ahead of the rest of the backup corps at corner.
Redshirt freshman Garrett Taylor appears to be completely recovered from the knee injury that cost him his senior season of high school and slowed him during his redshirt — he ran a 4.1 NFL shuttle in winter testing. At 6-foot, 196, he has good size, too. It is really just a matter of getting comfortable back on the field before he really pushes for playing time. He’s getting mostly second-team reps now on the field side.
Converted running back Nick Scott has been running second-team, as well, mostly on the boundary side. While it is doubtful he’ll push Reid for the starting spot any time soon, as he gets more reps at the new position he’ll have a chance to see backup time during the season. His positive personality has also been a hit among his fellow DBs.
Veteran reserve Jordan Smith and walk-on @Kyle Alston have also been getting second-team reps. Now a senior, Smith figures to see most of his action on special teams. As for Alston, he is doing whatever the staff asks of him, whether playing corner or moving inside in nickel and dime situations.
The tough news here is that two of the most promising new faces at safety — redshirt freshmen Ayron Monroe and John Petrishen — have been limited due to unspecified injuries. Monroe, who killed it in winter testing (4.07 NFL shuttle, 36.5 vertical, 10-7 broad and 4.46 40), really seemed poised to make headway in the spring.
With no natural safeties in the Class of 2016, it is important for both of these guys to get healthy so they can provide depth and increase competition among the backups.
In the meantime, another redshirt freshman, Jarvis Miller, has great size (6-2, 201) and was running third team early in the spring. But we did not see him in action last week.
As was noted, Apke is running No. 2 at free safety and is a key part of the nickel and dime packages.
Another extremely athletic redshirt sophomore, Koa Farmer, is backing up Golden at strong safety. A former high school running back, Farmer is big (6-1, 232) and has posted some ridiculous numbers — including a recent 4.43 40. The staff has said making the adjustment to defense has been difficult for Famer, and in our view a short try at LB last year may have only complicated that adjustment. But if he is ever able to put it all together, look out.