Twelve Days — DL

Our 12 Days of Christmas breakdown of the Penn State football program continues with one of the most improved areas of the team.


MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE: So how does a team go from having one of the worst defensive lines in the Big Ten to one of the best, with essentially the same cast of characters?

Chalk it up to health, wealth and a little common sense. Here’s what we mean:

Health: In 2003, when the Nittany Lions finished 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (209.1 ypg), the defensive line was young and injury prone. Penn State never went more than two games starting the same front four.

Everyone was a year older, a year wiser and a year stronger in 2004. The starting lineup was much more stable, with Tamba Hali and Matt Rice typically getting the call at end, and Scott Paxson and Jay Alford getting the nod at tackle. It showed as PSU reduced the number of rushing yards it allowed per game by 80.

Wealth: While that quartet of athletes usually started, line coach Larry Johnson Sr. had a wealth of talent to mix and match up front. When he needed a strong pass rush off the edge, lanky Lavon Chisley came in. When he needed help stuffing the run up the gut, Ed Johnson was called to duty.

There was also more talent at linebacker, where athletes like Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor actually made tackles when the action was funneled their way. Nothing like effective LBs to make a defensive line look good.

Common Sense: After a couple of difficult years at defensive tackle, Hali was moved to his more natural position of defensive end. He slimmed down to 265 pounds and was a terror against opposing offenses. His speed and quick first step allowed him to tie for the team leads in tackles for losses with 12.

And that set a tone for one of the most aggressive and effective defensive lines in the conference. Rice tied Hali for fourth on the team in tackles (51 each). Paxson has three sacks and blocked four kicks.

WHO WAS NAUGHTY: Johnson and Rice found a place in Joe Paterno’s dog house in the spring after being involved in an off-the-field brawl. But both worked themselves back into the coach’s good graces and played well in 2004.

WHO WAS NICE: Hali’s mother is stuck in war-torn Liberia. If he can follow up his terrific junior season with another strong effort next fall, he is certain to find himself in a position where he has the financial clout to get her out.

UNDER THE TREE: The Penn State staff has done a bang-up job recruiting here the past few years, so it is not a priority this winter.

We’re most anxious to see redshirt freshman A.Q. Shipley, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound tackle known for his power. Another redshirt frosh, Tyrell Sales, could provide depth at end or outside linebacker.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: Stay healthy. Otherwise, there’s no sense messing with a good thing. And, when possible, get the younger players in this area experience. Paxson, Hali, Rice and Chisley are all gone after next season.


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