Twelve Days — Corner

Our 12 Days of Christmas breakdown of the Penn State football program continues with the players who cornered the market on pass coverage.

MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE: This just in from the unbelievable stat department: In a Sept. 11 loss to Boston College, the Penn State defense allowed three touchdown passes. In the other 10 games of the season, the Nittany Lions allowed exactly two throws for scores.

And one of those was a garbage-time touchdown in a blowout win over Michigan State in the finale. Which means Penn State surrendered one meaningful touchdown pass — Kyle Orton’s game-winner to Taylor Stubblefield in the Purdue loss — in 600 minutes of play.

Improved efforts by the defensive line and linebackers obviously had a lot to do with that. But just as important was the emergence of Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips as lock-down corners.

With speed, size and a mean streak, Zemaitis became a focal point of opposing offensive coordinators. In short, they stayed away from him. That meant Phillips, in his first year as a full-time starter, got most of the action.

He responded by tying for the team lead in interceptions (four) and pacing the Lions in passes broken up (10). Phillips had some shaky moments — he allowed a long fourth-quarter completion by Indiana that nearly cost Penn State the game — but more often than not recovered to atone for his mistakes.

The game against the Hoosiers was a prime example. With IU’s Travis Haney seemingly headed for the winning touchdown after catching a pass behind Phillips, the cornerback scrambled to make the tackle at the 1-yard line. A goal-line stand preserved the win for PSU.

We really didn’t get to see much of anyone else in key situations here. The Lions were in so many tight games that the staff was reluctant to go with an inexperienced corner, even if only to spell Zemaitis and/or Phillips for a few plays.

Redshirt freshman Brent Wise looked good in the 2004 Blue-White game, but a minor off-the-field issue earned him a spot in Joe Paterno’s dog house and he didn’t get a chance to contribute in the regular season. Second-teamer Donnie Johnson eventually lost his job to DB turned wideout turned DB Gio Vendemia.

So depth is an issue here. It will become a real problem if Zemaitis decides to pass on his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. But we don’t get the sense he’ll project as a high enough pick for that move to make sense.

WHO WAS NAUGHTY: No wonder Phillips was moved from wideout to corner early in his career. He tied for the team lead with four interceptions, but dropped at least that many. Overall, however, he played well.

WHO WAS NICE: After leading the Big Ten in pass breakups with 18 in 2003, Zemaitis had only six this season. Tough to break ’em up when everyone is afraid to throw your way.

UNDER THE TREE: The key player here is likely to be incoming freshman Justin King. Enrolling in January in the hope of making an impact as a rookie, King has the kind of cover skills that could allow the staff to move Phillips to his more natural position of safety.

At the very least — if Zemaitis returns as expected — the youngster will provide an element of quality depth which was missing in 2004.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: Starting (but not ending) with King, Penn State has recruited well here recently. With Zemaitis and Phillips both heading into their final seasons, preparing for the future is imperative.


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