Nittany Notebook: DBs

With the Nittany Lion offense opening up the passing attack, the secondary, considered by many to be the strength of PSU's top-ranked defense, is getting a workout with a wider variety of schemes to cover in practice. Here is a closer look at how the secondary is looking.

The news and notes on the defensive backs out of preseason practice are generally positive with an emphasis on the overall depth of the unit and the "top to bottom speed" of the group. Here are some progress reports on various players and how some of their coverage schemes have broken down in practice so far.

Cornerbacks

Alan Zemaitis: With some national buzz surrounding the senior cornerback and spots on watch lists for the Jim Thorpe, Bednarik and Nagurski awards, the PSU captain has been a vocal force on the practice field. As one observer described, "A.Z. is all business out there. He not only pushes the [defensive] backs, but works with them on technique and fixing mistakes they make. He's like a coach on the field."

Zemaitis continues to work with some of the younger corners like Tony Davis and Justin King, but is also "determined to get Anwar [Phillips] maxing out his abilities." Throughout practice Zemaitis has rotated his assignments with a focus on younger players like Derrick Williams, James McDonald and Justin King (when he is not on defense) in order to "give the younger guys a crash course in going against the best."

Anwar Phillips: Phillips has all but locked up the other starting corner job and is expected to step in as the nickel back when Penn State brings in an extra defensive back, according to what Zemaitis told Fight On State recently.

Phillips is focused on refining his tackling technique in the off-season and has not focused on the hype his counterpart is receiving, saying, "We care about winning. As long as everything goes straight, I don't really care about all that media stuff."

"He's running well. I think some teams will feel they can just throw away from Zemaitis, but underestimating Anwar could be very dangerous," one observer shared.

Tony Davis: Described as "the best kept secret" in the defensive backfield, Davis has been seeing significant reps backing up Phillips with some of those snaps coming with the first team.

He is described as quick with solid fundamentals and good "look back technique" (the act of looking to the passer/ball during the play). He has also split reps at cornerback in the nickel formation stepping in for Phillips when he shifts to the nickel back spot.

Justin King: The ears of the Nittany Nation are listening for any word on King. Splitting time between receiver and defensive back, it is unclear what proportion that split will see. However, he has seen cornerback reps behind Zemaitis, rotating reps with Brent Wise.

King is also the corner who has split most of the reps with Tony Davis in the nickel scheme, stepping in for Phillips when he shifts. King may himself see reps as the nickel back as practice continues.

King is described as "tough, aggressive and all-around impressive" as well as showing "shadows of Zemaitis." Which is not surprising considering Zemaitis has worked with King since he arrived on campus in January.

Devin Fentress: Fentress is fast. described as a "track star on the football field" he is focusing on his coverage skills and adjusting to the overall increased speed of the game. He is expected to redshirt.

Willie Harriott: Similar to Fentress, Harriott has impressive speed, which he needs better control of to manage overpursuits in coverage.

Brent Wise: "Wise has come on strong" in the off-season and is expected to be the consisitent backup to Phillips, depending on how the staff decides to use Justin King.

Wise is "a smart player who knows how to use his body and create separation." He is good at breakups and jump balls and "could turn some heads this season — he provides nice depth back there," one observer said.

Safeties

Chris Harrell: Harrell has added an "injection of aggression" to the safeties. He plays "all out on every down" and is sometimes "overly aggressive."

His experience really should provide an added boost to the secondary. Harrell has participated in contact drills this week, but the staff is watching him closely to ensure he feels OK, which, so far, he seems to be doing well.

Donnie Johnson: The depth chart we put out a few weeks ago seemed to be correct when we predictd Johnson would back up Harrell. He is playing well and "is playing the position he was meant to."

Johnson practices hard and has worked with Harrell on his open-field tackling technique in drills.

Calvin Lowry: Expected to have the strong safety position wrapped up, Lowry is practicing as expected and has been called "an unsung hero of this defense."

Lowry is very intense and works very well with Harell back in the lineup. "They complement each other very well and know each other's tendencies."

Currently he is being backed up by Nolan McCready, whom he has been working with on refining his abilities given that Lowry is a senior in his final year.

Knowledge Timmons: Timmons has seen time at corner and safety. "He is raw, but so fast," an observer explained. Timmons' focus has been on "matching his assignments stride-for-stride and controlling his speed," which has been a challenge for him.

It is unclear if the staff will play Timmons on special teams this year, but several observers feel he should redshirt and work on the basics for a season.

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