Simply the Best? Talking Up PSU D.

Senior end Matt Rice has great expectations for the Penn State defense in 2005. How great? Well, let's just say the fifth-year senior's response may knock you out.

Boxer Muhammad Ali once proclaimed, “It's not bragging if you can back it up.” Though not quite as brash as the legendary pugilist, Penn State defensive end Matt Rice has obviously taken the quote to heart.

In a Tuesday morning conference call, the fifth-year senior was asked how the rebuilding Nittany Lion offense was holding up against the team's veteran defense in spring practice.

“Our offense, especially the younger dudes, they're getting the experience early in their career against one of the best defenses in the nation…” Rice said before pausing. “I'm going to go ahead and say it, THE best defense in the nation. We strongly believe that and we play like that.”

They sure did last year. In 2004, Penn State finished fifth in the nation in scoring defense (15.3 ppg), 10th in total defense (291.5 ypg) and was the only Division I-A team not to give up more than 21 points in a single game. This with an offense that finished last in the Big Ten in total yards and scoring, and ninth in the league in time of possession.

The defense lost only two starters to graduation, and picked up a former starter (safety Chris Harrell) off an injury redshirt.

Which brings up another Ali analogy.

“It's like boxing,” Rice reported. “You can't go into a ring thinking you're the second best. You have to always feel as though you're the best. You have to push yourself to be the best. You have to go out there on the field and show that you are the best.

“Me saying that, it's not boasting at all,” he added. “It's what we believe and what we want to show. And there's no other way to explain that without saying it.”

The key to this unit floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee? One goal is keeping individual egos in check. Players can talk all they want about how the defense as a whole is the greatest, but it ends there.

Asked if there was a friendly rivalry between Penn State's outstanding defensive line and emerging linebacker corps, Rice quickly responded.

“Not at all, man. With our defense, if everybody plays their assignment, somebody's going to make a tackle. It doesn't matter who makes the tackle. If we keep going the whole game, we're all going to shine. A rivalry? No, not at all.”

Rice does more than talk the team game. Coming off a season where he had 51 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks, the 6-foot-5, 256-pounder has the credentials to be an every-down player. But Penn State is loaded at defensive end, and Rice finds himself in a three-man rotation with fellow seniors Lavon Chisley and Tamba Hali at the two end spots.

All three players are capable of manning both positions. In a straight stack defense, Rice and Hali typically start. If the Lions open in a “penny,” or three-lineman look, Chisley and Hali get the nod. In either case, all three play extensively.

Jay Alford starts at one tackle spot, with Steve Roach and Elijah Robinson rotating at the other inside position. Veteran tackles Scott Paxson and Ed Johnson have both missed practice time while dealing with personal issues. If one or both return for the fall, there will be even more depth.

“There are no stars on our defensive line,” Rice said. “We all just work well together.”

He hopes to see the offense working well together, too, in 2005. Rice reported that his counterparts on the opposite side of the ball initially struggled against the proven defense in the spring. But, with roommate Michael Robinson now the full-time quarterback and speedy freshman Derrick Williams rejuvenating the receiving crew, Rice said, “I know what they can do. I'm just looking forward to seeing it get done.”

Which would make life that much easier for a defense that had to play while behind for the vast majority of the 2004 season. If it ranked among the nation's best under such difficult circumstances, just imagine what might happen if it has a lead every once in a while.

Rice can see it.

“I really don't want to put a stamp on what we can do,” he said. “I want to basically go out there and ball, all of us together. We're not putting limits on anything. With the defense we have, we don't actually know what we can do. It's just going to be a real good year for all of us.”

Later, he added, “I expect, and you should expect, a lot from our defense.”

NOTES

• Rice said Paxson “is not back with the team right now but he's going to be back. … When he was playing with us a couple of [times] in the spring, his presence made a great deal of difference.” Team sources said Paxson missed the start of spring practice while head coach Joe Paterno sorted through the “Arrowgate” mess. He is now reportedly out due to academic issues.

• Rice said to look out for young defensive ends Amani Purcell and Josh Gaines once the veterans move on. “Both of them are making tremendous strides.”

• Rice's career numbers include 92 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks.

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