Spring Countdown: DBs

Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan cover the defensive backs in the latest edition of their spring practice preview. With four starters lost to graduation, there will be plenty of new faces in the secondary. Get the lowdown on who to watch in the originial "Countdown" series.

Secondary

Key Issues

Brennan: Four multiple-year starters are gone as is the team's primary nickel back from 2005. And none of the returning players at these positions saw significant field time last season, at least not on defense. Are Tom Bradley and Brian Norwood up to the task of rebuilding the unit?

Harrington: As you astutely point out, the defensive coaches have a significant rebuilding project in front of them with the secondary. However, with perhaps the fastest set of prospects waiting in the wings, the staff should have myriad of talent to choose from to reconstruct this unit. There are expected to be some fierce battles this spring, with the coaches focused on coverage and tackling technique as the distinguishing criteria between the players since most of them have more than adequate speed.

Off-season Priorities

Harrington: It's all about fundamentals and technique this spring. Playing the defensive backfield effectively takes a lot more than just fast legs. The coaches will be working the athletes on everything from back-peddle technique and coverage fundamentals to their ability to direct their assignments. With impressive speed all around the players who will distinguish themselves in the spring will be the ones who can consistently cover the likes of Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams — a task easier said than done. There may not be a better all-around wideout unit to practice on in the country.

Brennan: Beyond identifying the personnel who best fit the different positions, it is important to at least start developing chemistry in the secondary. One of the strengths of last year's group was the ability to communicate on the fly. And while that obviously took years to develop, it had to start somewhere. For the new group, that somewhere is right here and right now.

Keep An Eye On

Brennan: I liked what I saw of Knowledge Timmons in the 2005 Big 33 Classic, when it seemed he was the only Pennsylvania defensive back who was NOT taken to the house by the potent Ohio passing game. I know all about the redshirt freshman's negative rap as a track guy playing football. Joe Paterno has even admitted that the staff initially had that view while recruiting Timmons before coming to its collective senses. At 5-10, 180, Timmons does not shy away from contact and his speed (4.37 in the 40) is unquestioned. Whether he emerges as a starter this year remains to be seen. But at the very least expect him to become a fan favorite as a special teams cover man.

Harrington: With players like Justin King, Devin Fentress, Willie Harriott and Timmons all boasting sub-4.4 40 speed, an older guy who has been almost overlooked is Tony Davis. Though Davis saw action in nine games last season, his playing time was limited, allowing him the opportunity to pull down only four tackles. Along with King, Davis is the likely candidate to have the early edge to win a starting corner job this off-season. "He's fast, aggressive and smart on coverage," one observer explained. "He plays tough and aggressive and is smarter on reads, which, if he continues to improve, could make him an outstanding corner."

Behind The Scenes

Harrington: With the starters headed into spring penciled in as King and Davis on the corners and Donnie Johnson and Anthony Scirrotto at the safeties, there are some battles expected to erupt, particularly with Fentress and Willie Harriott at corner. “Harriott used the redshirt year to improve dramatically. He has dramatically better control of his speed, which was his biggest problem coming in. It's great to be fast, but without control it is almost useless as a defensive back,” an observer explained. As for Fentress, his size, or lack thereof (5-foot-10, 165) is his biggest issue. “Devin has a disadvantage when it comes to his frame. He is smaller, which means he has to compensate with route running and coverage,” and observer said. Fentress plays “aggressive” though, and is expected to challenge in the secondary this spring.

Brennan: You have to love the attitude the coaching staff is taking here. Rather than looking at the turnover in talent as a negative, Bradley and Norwood want to have some fun with it. “We feel good about the guys we do have back and I'm really excited about it because there is so much competition within the group that it should be fun,” Norwood said. “I think competition breeds a focus. I'm excited about it.”

Setting The Record Straight

Brennan: Don't look now, but Penn State reputation for not producing strong NFL defensive backs has officially been turned on its head. And a lot of that has to do with Bradley. Since taking over the secondary in 1996, he has sent — in no particular order — Bryan Scott, David Macklin, Bhawoh Jue, Rich Gardner, James Boyd, Shawn Mayer and Kim Herring to the league. Four more will make the jump this year.

Harrington: Don't believe the hype! With the loss of all four starters in the secondary, the rumors have been out in full force, with anticipated shifts of everyone from Sean Lee to Mark Rubin to defensive back — remember when Deon Butler “requested” a move to corner (as one misinformed source reported) prior to the bowl? Well, there is one move you can expect. As FOS broke earlier this week, Spencer Ridenhour, the former linebacker, is now running with the safeties. He is almost identical in size to Johnson and “is built to play safety,” according to one observer.

Part 6: Secondary.
Part 5: Defensive Line.
Part 4: Offensive Line.
Part 3: Receiver.
Part 2: Running Back.
Part 1: Quarterback.

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