Nittany Notes: Secondary Focus

The defensive backfield has received a significant amount of attention this preseason, with the Nittany Lions looking to replace four senior standouts from 2005. Though the unit is young, the coaches have been working to reap the rewards of their recent recruiting efforts by leveraging the speed, instincts and athleticism of several defensive backs.

With the departure of corners Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips and safties Calvin Lowry and Chris Harrell it the NFL, the Penn State football team is looking to rebuild a secondary that played fast and aggressive last season.

"I am not going to go out on a limb and say that this secondary will be better than what PSU had last year, but given the speed and athleticism all around I think the potential of where they could end up surpasses last [season's] unit," one observer shared.

Cornerback: The starters at corner have been well established since the pring. The veteran of the group is sophomore Justin King, who has "manages his speed better" and "has found his gears," meaning he doesn't try to run as fast as he can at all times, allowing him to control his speed and avoid overpursuits better.

"Justin's speed has never, ever been in doubt — he's one of the fastest we have," according on one observer. "Now that he has a handle on his running, his coverage skills are much smoother and effective."

King has consistently shown his coverage abilities, "creating a real challenge for [quarterback Anthony] Morelli." Having gones against the "best wideouts on the team,," he has "caused headaches for guys like Deon Butler and Derrick Williams." One pointed out that Chris Bell has found some success thanks to the height advantage he has, but the speed he and the other wideouts have has "done little to help them consistently break from King."

King's play has "forced the wideouts to use their heads; they have to play smart and watch him as much as he watches them." For example, Williams will watch for King to look to the quarterback to see if the pass has been thrown in his direction. "Derrick will try to break off or throw a fake when Justin takes his eyes off him. This is challenging on a timed route, especially since he adjusts well and can catch back up."

On the other side Tony Davis "is probably the best defensive player no one has ever heard of" at Penn State. Davis is "quick and physical" and "is consistent off the line." At 5-foot-10, 196 pounds, Davis is "excellent in stride-for-stride coverage" on out routes and post patterns. He needs to work on his adjustments on quick cuts and curls, but "improves his play with every snap."

The backups to King and Davis are a "fast and furious bunch" in the form of Knowledge Timmons, Devin Fentress, Willie Harriott and Lydell Sargeant. Timmons receives consistent praise for "playing like a football player instead of a track star in pads." He is "agile," "quick," "nimble" and greatly improved on his backpeddling off the line and transitions into coverage.

Timmons has been running second team and working with King on enhancing the control of his speed. He has also been showing "great improvement with his hands." Timmons does play aggressive, and "goes for the ball a lot — he wants that big play — but he has to be careful he doesn't give up that big play in return."

Fentress saw limited action last year in the Illinois game. Since then he has developed a much better grasp of the secondary scheme and his overall role. A "smooth runner" and "smart DB," Fentress has good speed and fundamentals, but the size of his frame (at about 165 pounds) makes take-downs a challenge for him at times. "At times a guy will almost shake him off if he goes high." He's been working on his tackling technique to improve this.

Harriott has also refined his game in the off-season and "plays much more confident." Another speedster, Harriott's height (5-8) has served as a challenge for him against larger assignments like Bell and James McDonald.

The assessment on Sargeant is mixed. Some feel his time at corner has paid off and he "could step in and play the role well." Running with the third team this preseason, Sargeant has displayed consistent coverage skills. On the other hand, some feel he would be better suited with a position shift, with some suggesting running back. As one observer opined, "He's a talented player, and burying him with the third team isn't putting his skills to use."

Safety: Fifth year senior Donnie Johnson has "provided essential leadership and experience to the unit." Johnson is "incredibly strong" and quick. He has "sharp instincts" and plays "all-out on every down." His experience as the nickel back has helped to refine his reads.

One observer said, "D.J. has come into his own after several position moves early on. He is smart and reacts so well off the snap."

Backing up Johnson are Spencer Ridenhour and Jason Ganter. "Spence is so intense, he scares some guys. He's crazy on the field, but disciplined." Ridenhour was battling with Mark Rubin for the backup role prior to Rubin sustaining a shoulder injury.

Ganter is comparable in size to Ridenhour, but does not have his speed or intensity. "Jay is a smart guy and can make reads pretty well. He just needs to get consistent with making plays."

Though Nolan McCready was in the first-team free safety spot early on in the preseason, Anthony Scirrotto recently overtook that spot and has been seeing first-team reps. "Nolan is among the best on reads and communications, which is important, but Anthony is a more physical player — better overall technique. I think we'll see both guys in the mix, though."

Darien Hardy is a "hard hitter who can layout a ball carrier," he's added some size and is upward of 205 pounds. He's nimble and "plays up on his toes" and has shown "impressive wrap up technique."

Take a look at FOS' Projected Depth Chart for the Notre Dame game.


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