TYM: Countdown to Spring Practice

The original "Countdown" series continues as FOS staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan give the lowdown on Penn State's rebuilding defensive line. Who will take over for the three departed starters? Which veteran is being overlooked? And which senior will come to the front in 2006?

DEFENSIVE LINE

Key Issues

Brennan: The defensive line loses three starters, all of whom (pending the resolution of one serious legal problem) figure to be in NFL camps this summer. Much like the rebuilding offensive line, there is young talent here but it is largely untested. The unit will also receive a boost from the return of former starting tackle Ed Johnson from a disciplinary suspension that cost him the 2005 season. Generally speaking, however, there will not be nearly enough quality depth here in the spring. Reinforcements will arrive when the Class of 2006 does in late June.

Harrington: The biggest issue is finding some semblance of replacements for three standout linemen in All-American Tamba Hali, Matthew Rice and Scott Paxson. This unit will be a young one, but has talent. It will be up to Larry Johnson to quickly pull that talent together into a cohesive unit. There's likely not a better coach for the job though.

Off-season Priorities

Harrington: A major priority is getting Ed Johnson back on the practice field to fine-tune his technique and fundamentals and to get him acclimated to the game once more. Although Johnson is “a little soft” compared to when he left the team, according to one source, he is “strong as an ox” and is expected to be right into the thick of the defensive tackle spring battles. The faster he gets back up to speed, the better foundation this line will have to work with.

Brennan: Though defensive end is not considered a “skill” position, it ought to be because there is so much technique involved. And from that perspective, it is vital for youngster like Josh Gaines and Mike Lucian -- players with excellent physical ability -- to load up on reps in the spring to get up to speed quickly.

Keep An Eye On

Brennan: It's not often we place a senior in this slot. But after starting the season-opener at tackle last season, Jimmy Shaw, a transfer from Rice, sustained a knee injury and was limited to eight games the rest of the way. He has an amazing combination of strength and speed, as was evident in the Orange Bowl when -- finally healthy -- he came through with a sack for a safety. If healthy, he'll be a key contributor this year. The only question is whether it will be at end or tackle.

Harrington: Great pick on Shaw. I think a lot of folks are underestimating Gaines, who saw limited action in 10 games last season. That action “really helped him refine his fundamentals and overall play," one observer shared. Gaines plays "aggressive" and "intense," which helps him apply pressure on the pocket, but has also taken him out of plays at times with over-pursuits. He has good fundamentals with his base and tackling technique and "plays all out" on snaps. He should be able to add some much-needed depth to the end position.

Behind The Scenes

Harrington: The defensive staff has been impressed with the progress of Elijah Robinson. “He should get battle-tested this spring -- he has continually improved,” according to one observer. Robinson doesn't seem to have the fan anticipation Ed Johnson has, but he is expected to battle Johnson at tackle. “Working with Ed should really help Elijah,” as one observer put it.

Brennan: Other than star linebacker Paul Posluszny, which Penn State defender is most likely to contend for All-America honors in 2006? I'll go with Jay Alford. He quietly finished second on the team in tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (8.5) as a junior. For all of the talk of the people Penn State is losing up front, there is not nearly enough discussion about the one 2005 starter who returns.

Setting The Record Straight

Brennan: With the depth Penn State has at linebacker, I would not be surprised if the staff at least toys with the idea of using a three-man front more often than it has in recent years. Whether it actually materializes in the regular season is open for debate. That may well depend on whether two or three freshmen emerge to fill holes in the defensive line depth chart in August.

Harrington: There has been a lot of typical off-season buzz around the implementation of a 3-4-4 scheme into the mix. While TomBradley and Larry Johnson are expected to look at it, the line needs a dominating nose tackle to provide the strength of a three-man front. Ed Johnson could eventually fit the bill, but he needs to work out the rust. Incoming freshman Phillip Taylor could eventually fit the bill, but he hasn't seen a single collegiate snap. These guys have a lot of work to undertake before a 3-4-4 can be effectively implemented out of the gate.

Part 4: Offensive Line
Part 3: Receiver.
Part 2: Running Back.
Part 1: Quarterback.

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