Recruiting Report: Defense

April is always a pivotal month in the life of the Penn State football program. The main attractions are spring practice and the Blue-White Game, of course, but April also has great significance for recruiting.

April 15 marks the start of the May Evaluation Period, the first contact period on the recruiting calendar allowed by the NCAA between college football coaches and high school seniors-to-be. Last year, Joe Paterno made waves by traveling during the May Evaluation Period to the high schools of the top targets on Penn State's recruiting board for the first time in recent memory. His high school tour put the Nittany Lions in good position to eventually land Justin King and Derrick Williams among others.

It would be surprising if Paterno chose not to travel again this year given the fruit those trips eventually bore last year. The NCAA has set aside the six weeks from April 15 through May 31 as this year's Evaluation Period. Each school must choose four consecutive weeks during that time span as their contact period.

Spring practice culminates with the Blue-White Game April 23, meaning the Nittany Lion coaches will go on the road starting April 24 for four weeks of player evaluation and visits with high school coaches across the country. This month-long journey will begin to clarify exactly which prospects are at the top of Penn State's wish list of the Class of 2006 and which positions are considered the most critical needs.

In this month's Recruiting Report, I'll provide an educated guess as to how many players are needed at each position for the next recruiting class. The Class of 2005 contained a high concentration of skill position talent on both sides of the ball. Now, the coaches need to address the paper-thin depth in the trenches, add even more speed at the skill positions and handle the running back situation.

What follows is a position-by-position breakdown of which Nittany Lions have eligibility remaining for the 2006 season and how many players will need to be signed for the Class of 2006. Remember that in recruiting, you don't look at the current year, but instead look one to two years down the road to see where the depth will be thin. Early projections indicate that the Nittany Lions should have 18-20 scholarships to give out with this recruiting class depending on how many potential fifth-year seniors choose to return.

We talked about the offense earlier in the week. Now we turn our attention to defense.

Defense

Defensive Tackle

Players Eligible to Return for 2006: Jay Alford, Chris Baker, Ed Johnson, Steve Roach, Elijah Robinson, John Shaw, A.Q. Shipley

Number of Players Needed in Class of 2006: 2-3

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson needs some reinforcements in the Class of 2006. The defensive line will be devastated by graduation following the 2005 season with the defensive end positions being hit the hardest. At the defensive tackle positions, current starter Scott Paxson will have to be replaced, and Jay Alford will be entering his senior year in 2006.

Ed Johnson has plenty of experience and will likely move into a starting role, but the rest of the players listed above are either inexperienced or have yet to make an impact during their Penn State career.

John Shaw may not even be on the defensive side of the ball by the time the 2006 season arrives. He has practiced on the offensive line during spring drills and is seen by many as a better offensive guard prospect than a defensive tackle prospect because of his tendency to try to maul the person across from him instead of going to the football.

In addition, A.Q. Shipley is wanted by both Larry Johnson and the offensive line coaches. He is expected to practice on both sides of the line this spring due to the offensive line depth issues created by the bow and arrow incident. Shipley wants to remain a defensive tackle, but he could find himself at center by 2006.

Elijah Robinson has promise and should be a solid player, but Larry Johnson usually likes to rotate four defensive tackles during the course of a game in order to keep everyone fresh. That's why it's imperative for the coaching staff to sign two defensive tackle prospects with the Class of 2006.

Any tackles who sign with this recruiting class will get a chance to provide depth right away if they are good enough and get a year's experience under their belt before being asked to play a more significant role the following year.

If Shaw and/or Shipley make the move to the offensive side of the ball, the Penn State coaches may want to sign three defensive tackles in this class. Regardless of Shaw and Shipley's status, two defensive tackles are a must. At this point, Jason Pinkston from Baldwin in the WPIAL is one of the top defensive tackle prospects with a scholarship offer from Penn State.

Defensive End

Players Eligible to Return for 2006: Brennan Coakley, Josh Gaines, Mike Lucian, Amani Purcell, Jimmy Shaw

Number of DEs Needed in Class of 2006: 3

The defensive end position is arguably the most critical need for the entire recruiting class. Tamba Hali and Matt Rice, the expected 2005 starters, will both graduate following the season, as will backup Lavon Chisley, leaving the defensive end spots woefully thin and inexperienced.

Josh Gaines and Amani Purcell are the most likely candidates to get playing time in 2005 behind the experienced trio of Hali, Rice and Chisley. They project as the 2006 starters at defensive end. Mike Lucian may actually become a defensive tackle by 2006. He was listed at 6-foot-2 ,273 pounds heading into spring practice. He would have to stay close to that weight to remain a defensive end.

As for Jimmy Shaw, he too could be at another position by the time the 2006 season arrives. He has taken reps at tight end in spring practice, but it's too soon to tell whether that experiment will lead to a permanent position change.

Finally, Brennan Coakley was recruited as a tight end, although I have been projecting him at defensive end due to the lack of depth at the position. There's certainly no guarantee that he will find a home on defense. Even with Coakley, Lucian and Shaw at defensive end, Penn State would barely have enough ends to fill out a two-deep.

That is why I feel the coaches must sign three defensive ends with this recruiting class. At least two of them have to be capable of playing as true freshmen in order to allow the Nittany Lions to continue to rotate their ends the way that Larry Johnson prefers.

Middle Linebacker

Players Eligible to Return for 2006: Pat Bedics, Dontey Brown, Dan Connor, Jerome Hayes, Tim Shaw

Number of MLBs Needed in Class of 2006: 0-1

Ron Vanderlinden has a nice problem on his hands. Does he play ultra fast Tim Shaw inside or does he put Shaw on the outside and Freshman All-American Dan Connor in the middle? There appears to be no wrong answer to that question and Vanderlinden will have both players back again in 2006.

Early indications are that Shaw will be inside and Connor will play on the outside in 2005, but as Joe Paterno said in his pre-spring practice press conference, both players could see snaps inside and outside this season.

Redshirt freshman Dontey Brown has been playing middle linebacker with the second team in spring practice so far. He has significant potential, as does incoming freshman Jerome Hayes. The future of the position appears to be bright. Middle linebacker is not a position of need, but if there is an elite prospect who shows interest in the Nittany Lions, the coaches may try to sign one.

Outside Linebacker

Players Eligible to Return for 2006: Dorian Burton, Joe Cianciolo, Dan Connor, Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny, Tyrell Sales, Tim Shaw, J.R. Zwierzynski

Number of OLBs Needed in Class of 2006: 2

The outside linebackers are the stars of a very strong Penn State defense. Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny will both be back in 2006 assuming that Poz does not leave early for the NFL. Posluszny, Tim Shaw and J.R. Zwierzynski will all be seniors in 2006 and Connor could be an early NFL entry candidate, meaning the coaches probably need to sign two outside linebackers in the Class of 2006.

Tyrell Sales is currently practicing at outside linebacker and incoming freshman Sean Lee will also get a look on the outside first. They will be counted on next year to provide depth and will allow any prospects who sign with the Class of 2006 to develop at their own pace.

There are plenty of excellent linebacker prospects in Penn State's traditional recruiting territory, and the Nittany Lion coaches have already handed out scholarship offers to a few of them including Maryland high school stars Navorro Bowman and Akeem Hebron.

Cornerback

Players Eligible to Return in 2006: Tony Davis, Devin Fentress, Donnie Johnson, Justin King, Knowledge Timmons, Brent Wise

Number of CBs Needed in Class of 2006: 1

Thanks to the Class of 2005, there is now plenty of young talent at the cornerback position. Justin King is expected to play a lot this year at nickel back before taking over one of the starting corner spots in 2006 following the graduation of current starters Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips.

Inexperience will be a theme at this position. Donnie Johnson has seen limited action at corner and will be a backup along with King this season. The other cornerbacks listed above have no game experience heading into the 2005 season, mainly because Tony Davis is a redshirt freshman and Devin Fentress and Knowledge Timmons will not arrive on campus until August.

You can never have too many good corners because they are among the best athletes on the team. I am projecting one cornerback for this class, but Penn State could recruit an athlete who is capable of playing either cornerback or wide receiver to provide flexibility for the coaching staff.

Safety

Players Eligible to Return for 2006: Jim Kanuch, Nolan McCready, Spencer Ridenhour, Anthony Scirrotto, Knowledge Timmons

Number of Ss Needed in Class of 2006: 2

Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry will graduate after the 2005 season, leaving both safety positions open for 2006. Jim Kanuch is practicing at wide receiver this spring, further depleting safety depth. In addition, Spencer Ridenhour is getting a look at outside linebacker this spring, although it would be surprising if he moved there permanently.

Incoming freshmen Anthony Scirrotto and Knowledge Timmons will need to learn quickly because they will be counted on in 2006 to make significant contributions. Timmons is listed at both cornerback and safety at this time because it's uncertain which defensive backfield position he will play.

The coaching staff should look to sign two safety prospects in the Class of 2006 in order to have the kind of depth you need to survive.


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