Recruiting Report Card: Defense

What follows is a position-by-position breakdown of Penn State's Class of 2005 and a grade that represents how well the players being brought in fill the recruiting needs at the position. Keep in mind that these are just projections and do not reflect the opinion of anyone on the Penn State coaching staff. We started with the offense Wednesday, and pick up with the defense today.

Defensive Tackle
Players Needed: 1
Players Signed: 1 (Chris Baker)
Grade: B-

Defensive tackle will be a major priority for the Class of 2006, but in this recruiting class, the Nittany Lions only needed one. They signed Baker, a player long on potential, and have time to allow him to develop at a reasonable pace. Baker possesses tremendous athleticism, but he has only played organized football for two years. Omar Easy was the last Nittany Lion to arrive as a freshman with so little football experience.

Still, Baker did earn first-team All-State honors in Connecticut this season, and Larry Johnson will get every ounce of talent out of Baker over the next five years. This is exactly the type of player worth taking a chance on. It may take a while for Baker to blossom, but he has the size and speed needed to play well at this level.

Defensive End
Players Needed: 2
Players Signed: 1 (Brennan Coakley)
Grade: D

This grade is not meant to be a reflection on Coakley. He is considered a solid tight end prospect, but with serious depth issues about to crop up for the Nittany Lions at defensive end following the 2005 season, the coaches needed to find a couple of natural end prospects.

They were unable to do this and therefore failed to address a position that is about to lose three productive players after this season. Tamba Hali, Matthew Rice, Lavon Chisley and are all entering their final season of eligibility. Their presence will likely not allow players such as Amani Purcell, Josh Gaines and Tyrell Sales to get many meaningful snaps in 2005, leaving Penn State with a set of very inexperienced ends for the 2006 season.

With only a handful of defensive ends already in the system, it was important for the Nittany Lions to add a couple of end prospects that could be redshirted and then compete for playing time the following season. The coaches did not meet this goal, but it was not for a lack of effort. The coaches targeted several highly touted defensive ends, but were unable to convince any of them to sign with Penn State.

As a result, there is not a true defensive end prospect in the recruiting class. Because Francis Claude and Mickey Shuler are already ticketed for tight end spots, it makes sense to try Coakley first at defensive end during his redshirt year. He has enough size to get a look there, but the recruiting services considered him a better tight end prospect than a defensive end prospect. Defensive end becomes a critical position of need for the Class of 2006.

Linebacker
Players Needed: 2-3
Players Signed: 2 (Jerome Hayes, Sean Lee)
Grade: A

The linebacking corps, already the strength of the defense, got even stronger with the addition of two excellent prospects in Hayes and Lee.

Hayes appears to be a prototypical middle linebacker and was at the center of an intense recruiting battle all year long. He received over 40 scholarship offers and eventually chose Penn State over Miami, Michigan State and Rutgers. A two-time first-team All-State selection, he could allow Ron Vanderlinden to keep Dan Connor at outside linebacker while working Tim Shaw and Hayes into the rotation in the middle.

Lee, meanwhile, brings the same warrior mentality to the outside linebacker position that Paul Posluszny introduced two seasons ago. Lee might actually be a better athlete than Posluszny. Last season, he rushed for 1,240 yards and 21 touchdowns, and also made 95 tackles and four interceptions.

After football season ended, Lee went to work on the hardwood, averaging 23 points per game to lead Upper St. Clair to its first WPIAL Class AAAA championship since 1996. He played every position on the floor at one point during the season, which should give an idea of the tremendous athleticism he possesses.

Needless to say, the coaching staff did an excellent job of filling needs in the linebacking corps. They upgraded the quality of the depth at linebacker and should reap the benefits this fall.

Cornerback
Players Needed: 2-3
Players Signed: 3 (Devin Fentress, Justin King, Knowledge Timmons)
Grade: B

I was reluctant to give this position an A despite the presence of King due to the fact that while Fentress and Timmons have worlds of potential, there's no guarantee that their potential will turn into production. King, however, appears to be as close to can't miss as they come. He is the top-ranked cornerback in the nation, and in my opinion, it's not exaggerating to say he might be the most important recruit to sign with the Nittany Lions since LaVar Arrington.

King could have gone anywhere, but by choosing to help rebuild Penn State, he made it easier for the coaches to convince other high-end prospects such as Derrick Williams and Jerome Hayes to join the rebuilding effort. King's early enrollment will allow him to participate in spring practice, and he should at the very least see action in the nickel package and on punt and kick returns this fall. King's presence strengthens an already talented secondary and should allow Tom Bradley to employ more aggressive blitzing schemes this year.

Fentress and Timmons possess one important quality that you cannot teach – speed. Both are track stars in their respective states and both are determined to show that they are football players with track speed, not track guys trying to play football. Timmons expects to bring a physical presence to the Penn State secondary, but depending on how the wide receiver recruits pan out, he could also be tried on the offensive side of the ball.

Fentress has been under the radar with many fans, mainly because he committed so early in the recruiting year, but he is a legitimate cornerback prospect. He will likely redshirt, especially with veterans Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips back for their senior seasons.

There's no doubt that the coaching staff successfully addressed one of the team's glaring needs by adding plenty of speed in the secondary.

Safety
Players Needed: 1-2
Players Signed: 1 (Anthony Scirrotto)
Grade: B-

Penn State has nine safeties returning for the 2005 season, so why would we show a need for one or two more? Most of the safeties listed are either walk-ons who appear only on special teams or scholarship players who have little to no meaningful game experience. Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry are set to graduate after this season, leaving the two safety spots wide open for 2006.

Penn State signed Scirrotto, a three-sport star from Westville, N.J., as the lone safety prospect in this class. There is some debate over whether Scirrotto might be a better baseball prospect than a football prospect. He received numerous scholarship offers for both sports before eventually deciding to leave behind the baseball diamond and play college football.

Scirrotto brings ball-hawking skills and leadership to the mix. He intercepted 25 passes during his four years as a starter at West Deptford, and quarterbacked the team to back-to-back state championships and a 25-game win streak. He is projected to get a look at free safety for Penn State and will redshirt in all likelihood.

This class could have used another strong safety candidate in my opinion, hence the B-, although it's possible that Sean Lee could be tried there if he maintains his current weight.

Place-kicker
Players Needed: 1-2
Players Signed: 1 (Kevin Kelly, Matthew Waldron (preferred walk-on)
Grade: B+

Joe Paterno has lamented his team's inability to win close games in recent years. The kicking game is a major reason for the team's struggles. Robbie Gould needed a three-for-three performance in the final game of his Penn State career to raise his field goal conversion rate to 50 percent for the season.

With the offense struggling to get into the end zone, Gould's accuracy woes compounded the problem. The coaches hope they have found an answer to the team's place-kicking problems in the duo of Kevin Kelly and Matthew Waldron.

Kelly comes to Penn State on scholarship and will be given every opportunity to beat out returning place-kicker Patrick Humes and Waldron for the starting job. Kelly had a brilliant high school career, starting all four years for Neshaminy High, earning first-team All-State honors twice and setting state records for points scored and consecutive extra points made along the way. Accuracy is his strong suit, but he has plenty of leg strength as well, connecting on six field goal attempts from beyond 50 yards during his high school career.

Waldron's decision to accept a preferred walk-on invitation from the Nittany Lions came as a pleasant post-Signing Day surprise. Waldron was the place-kicker for the East squad at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January and was expected to attend Michigan as a walk-on. Penn State got into the picture late, The Oakfield, N.Y. native relished the opportunity to play close to home and compete for the starting job.

Waldron was 8 for 9 on field goal attempts for Alabama High and was a small school first-team All-State selection. He opened a lot of eyes with his consistent performance during the week of practice leading up to the All-American Bowl. Waldron might not have as strong a leg as Kevin Kelly, but he is extremely accurate.

It's somewhat frightening to entrust such a critical position to a true freshman, but the subpar results in the placekicking department over the past two seasons make the concept easier to swallow. The coaches did an excellent job of bringing in two highly touted kickers with this class and will hopefully see a reversal of fortune in the kicking game as a result.

Overall Grade: B

I think the coaching staff pulled off a couple of minor miracles with this recruiting class. It's difficult to imagine another program being able to sign two of the top ten players in the country on the heels of a 4-7 season. It's obvious that Joe Paterno still has drawing power and can recruit with the best of them.

Last year's class laid the foundation for a resurgence by addressing the quarterback position as well as the offensive and defensive lines. This class addresses the team's glaring lack of difference-makers at the skill positions and adds quality depth to an already solid defense.

It's all potential until they step onto the field, but the coaching staff has to feel good about the class that just signed. Justin King and Derrick Williams should make an immediate impact, and there are a few others who should warrant playing time this fall as well.

There aren't can't-miss prospects at every position, but virtually no program can say that about their recruiting class. A few losses at the end of the recruiting year prevented the overall grade from being any higher, but it's difficult to find fault with this class considering Penn State's 7-16 record over the past two seasons. It appears that brighter days are ahead.

Check out our Offensive Report Card.


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