Nittany Notes: Defensive Line Work

With the Nittany Lions having to replace three departed starters in Tamba Hali, Matt Rice and Scott Paxson on the defensive front, the coaching staff is gaining added comfort with the depth of the overall unit. This despite the youth and inexperience involved.

It's no secret that Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson makes good use of rotations to keep fresh legs on the field and maintain heavy pressure on the pocket. In order to effectively run these rotations, each position requires a small team of players who can effectively play one or even multiple positions on the line.

Here is how things are shaping up at those positions:

Defensive End: Through this preseason the first-team defensive ends have been Jimmy Shaw and Josh Gaines. Shaw has been "downright dominating at times" in the recent scrimmages and "less impressive at other times." He has tremendous power and has been "a handful for guys." Shaw has been a "good test" for the offensive tackles like Levi Brown and John Shaw, who happens to be Jimmy's brother. Incidentally, the periodic clashes between the Shaw brothers have been described as "seeing two rams slam their heads at full speed — there's some intense competition between those two."

Shaw's fundamentals are "solid," but he needs greater consistency. "He just needs to bring it on every down," one observer said. "When he goes all out he can bowl over an assignment, but his intensity ebbs and flows."

Gaines has also shown improvement this preseason. "He's starting to understand how to pick up leverage off the snap and get his guy back using his legs and hands. He's strong, no doubt about it, but it takes more than strength. He needs to continually refine his technique; get low, wide and explode off the line — launch that power into the chest of the guy across from him."

Gaines has particularly started to show stronger promise on applying pressure to the pocket. As one observer said, "A good measure of how an end is doing is how much is he challenging the tackles and guards opposite him. Shaw typically requires more attention than Gaines, but he is getting better at IDing a breakpoint and hitting it to disrupt the pocket. Rice was a disruption type of end while Hali was a collapser. Shaw has a better chance to be the collapser, so Gaines needs to work toward playing the role Rice was in."

In terms of depth Jared Odrick has been among the most impressive players at the end position. Described as "a pretty complete player, physically and mentally" Odrick is also said to have a "fantastic motor and head for the game." He goes all out on every down and "doesn't just listen intently when someone is instructing him, but often has questions about how he needs to improve."

The consensus about Odrick is that he is well on his way toward challenging for the two-deep. Odrick and transfer Chris Rogers have been splitting second-team reps and while Rogers' overall fundamentals are ahead at this stage, it seems to be a moot point with observers. "Odrick is too talented and determined not to make the two-deep. I expect to see him in the end rotation early on." Rogers is also expected to enter the rotation to help "keep the pass rush fresh."

On the other side, Gaines' backups are Jed Hill and Maurice Evans. Hill's fundamentals have been a focus this preseason; getting his center low as to not get knocked back off the line. Evans has been focused on his overall endurance, as his technique is "coming along nicely."

Defensive Tackle:

Jay Alford's spot is the only position through the preseason drills that seems "set in stone." As one observer shared, "His play makes the offensive line better." Alford "sits low and wide, he squares his shoulders and has a great motor." He's described as a "dominating force" who has been asked more than once to "ease up" in order to allow for the offensive linemen to get through their drills and practice their technique.

Alford has been working with freshman Phillip Taylor on his technique and ability to sit low, which can be challenging for a player upward of 340 pounds. Taylor's real focus has been his conditioning, "which has improved since he arrived on campus," and "directing his power." Early on Taylor came at assignments "big and high," which allowed the opposing player to sit low and "take him out. When he gets to the point where he pulls the trigger out and low rather than straight up, not many guys will be able to handle him one on one."

The other tackle spot has been one of the most hotly contested positions on the entire team with Ed Johnson, Chris Baker and Elijah Robinson all making a push for considerable time. Although he missed last year Johnson's "back on track. He and Alford make a tough duo in the middle." His consistency is coming around, particularly on plugging holes. "He's made things challenging for Tony Hunt at times. He tosses a bag of bricks with his hits."

Baker, considered the most improved of the trio, is also said to be the most agile. He has "good strength" and is "smart on his reads. He is not as aggressive or intense as Eddie, but has good instincts and knows when to get his hands up to minimize the passing routes."

Robinson is also emerging as a strong pass rusher. He's improved on his overall hands and he "plays big, which draws attention away from Alford at times and opens things up." Overall his power is not to the level of Johnson or Baker, but "these three guys will make up a strong rotation and should take some of the pressure off the ends early on to help them get acclimated."

Penn State's defensive coaches know they are dealing with a significant amount of inexperience on the three deep here. However, in terms of the anticipated starters, Jay Alford saw action in 12 games last year, starting in 11 of those clashes, Josh Gaines saw action in 11 games, Jimmy Shaw saw action in eight games and prior to his suspension, Ed Johnson saw action in 10 games in 2004, starting in three. So, the line has a "non-trivial" amount of game experience to build from. It must focus on bringing the depth of the unit up so the line rotations can be established and set.

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