Defensive Practice: Shock and Ahh...

With kickoff of the 2005 season a little over a week away, the Nittany Lions have seen some pleasant surprises and some unpleasant disappointments around the squad. Here is a look at some defensive developments that may pleasantly shock (or at least please) you and some situations that may have you saying "Ahh...nuts," among other things.

Pleasant Shocks

  • Young And Fast: The stable of young defensive backs has impressed the staff throughout preseason practice. As one observer described, "The overall speed of these young corners and safeties is something new to this team."

    While Justin King's speed and athleticism have set up expectations around some early play at cornerback in straight and nickel schemes, there are a number of other young defensive backs who have been turning heads. Redshirt freshman Tony Davis "is really coming together with his overall play." He is stronger and more disciplined on coverage at corner and expected to provide some important depth. Although Devin Fentress and Willie Harriott are expected to redshirt this season (this decision has not been made yet) they both have "adapted very well to the speed of the game - better than most young DBs out of the gate."

    Add Knowledge Timmons as another defensive back who is "super fast, but needs to just work on his fundamentals," and this could be "the foundation of one of the fastest secondaries here [at Penn State]." Timmons has the speed to play corner, but needs to focus controlling that speed, especially off the line on backpedals. All in all though, the staff is impressed with the early progress of this younger group.

  • Safe Return: There were concerns around Chris Harrell's return to the lineup after being sidelined with nick injury in 2004, however "you'd never guess he missed an entire season." Harrell picked up where he left off, playing "fast, hard and aggressive on every down."

    Early in the preseason the coaches even asked him to temper his "enthusiasm" simply to help integrate the young receivers and introduce them to his aggressive style. However, "His play has definitely made several of the young wideouts better."

    Harrell's return has given a boost to the entire team on some level. He, like Zemaitis, has been working with the young defensive backs on coverage technique. He has not only shown the young receivers how to handle aggressive coverage, but also shared tips on how to effectively identify and exploit weaknesses in coverage they come up against.

  • Linebacker U: Several of the young linebackers have the defensive staff very excited about the depth of the unit, despite the suspension of freshman All-Amercian Dan Connor. Among the most impressive young backers have been Jerome Hayes, Sean Lee and Tyrell Sales. "Sales is a natural fit in the middle as a run stopper. He has shown no hesitation in stepping up and laying a hit on a runner," one observer shared. Sales is also solid on "his ability to read offensive line shifts - that's tough to teach."

    Hayes has "shown tremendous ability" through the preseason. He is intense and "determined to make an early impact." He reads and reacts well and has shown good take-down technique.

    Although Sean Lee was recently sidelined with a knee sprain, he is expected to return to action this coming week. Lee has "been impressive when you consider he started playing linebacker about a month ago." He is also aggressive and "naturally sits low." Given the depth he may redshirt due to the overall depth of the unit, but "has the foundation to be a solid backer."

    "Ahh...Nuts!"

  • "End" To A Means: Although the Lions have the starting defensive ends set with Matthew Rice and Tamba Hali, the departure of senior Lavon Chisley due to academics lays a blow to the depth of the unit. Couple this with the transfer of Amani Purcell earlier in the off-season and the unit is in need of some backup, especially given Coach Johnson's tendency to implement rotations in the line.

    The staff has shifted Mike Lucian from tackle to end this week to see which spot he would serve best. They like what they have seen of him at the end position. "He's not a finesse player like Tamba [Hali], but he is good at constantly moving his feet and using his hands. If he can get his pads lower off the blocks he could be a solution there," an observer explained. There was concern around his size hindering him on pass rushes, but he has handled it well overall.

    Josh Gaines has also shown some promise, but continues to work on coming out of his stance and "gaining leverage on the corner." The defensive staff is expected to continue to work a solution for this through the preseason.

  • Tackling Depth: With the suspension of Ed Johnson and the demotion of Scott Paxson, the right tackle spot is in search of a starter and backup. Although Scott Paxson has seen some first team reps in practice, don't expect him to see much playing time early on in the season thanks to his "Arrowgate" punishment.

    This leaves the position up for grabs between Elijah Robinson, Steve Roach and Jimmy Shaw. "All three have shown they can handle the position OK, but no one has reached out and grabbed it yet."

    The staff is pushing all three to step up, but the general feeling is that the right tackle spot could be the weakest link out of the gate of an otherwise solid defense.

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