TYM: Defensive Line Look

With Penn State's spring practice right around the corner, it's time to dust off our Take Your Marks series and take an early look at each unit as the Lions prepare for spring ball. You know the drills with TYM. In it, FOS staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan discuss and debate various topics. In this version they tackle the defensive line.

Biggest Hole

Harrington: Although it would seem that the inside of the line has some major gaps to fill in the rotation, particularly with Jay Alford and Ed Johnson gone, the rotation still has some solid experience from Chris Baker, who saw action in eight games in 2006, and Phlilip Taylor, who saw action in seven games, I think the unit has another hole that is being overlooked. Tim Shaw shifted to the stand-up defensive end position and managed to pull down seven sacks, one fewer than Alford's team-best eight.

Though redshirt freshman Aaron Maybin seems to be a likely successor for the role and has some impressive athleticism and speed, he has seen zero game snaps. Shaw's ability to apply pressure off the wings was a major advantage for the defense. Larry Johnson must find a fast, aggressive, smart candidate to fill the role. Maybin could be that guy.

Brennan: There is a hole in your argument there. No less an authority than Levi Brown said Maybin is better than many of the ends the Nittany Lions faced last season. And let's not forget about Maurice Evans, who had a dozen tackles and 1.5 sacks as a true freshman. Granted, neither player is as fast as Tim Shaw. But how many ends (or even linebackers) are? Having that kind of speed on the edge was a luxury, but it came at the expense of the kind of size Maybin and Evans bring. Throw in an experienced Josh Gaines, Jared Odrick and incoming grayshirt freshman Eric Latimore, and there is solid depth all around at end without even tapping into the true freshman class.

Inside, it is a different story. Two multiple-year starters are gone, and I don't know that anyone remaining is close to their caliber -- yet. Why else would the staff feel the need to move Elijah Robinson back over from the offensive line? Don't get me wrong; I think with players like Taylor and Tom McEowen (when healthy again), PSU will be in good shape at DT in the long run. Early in the 2007 season, though, I could see this as a trouble spot. I would not be stunned if Odrick saw some time inside simply to shore things up a bit.

Brightest Spot

Harrington: Though I have concerns about the departure of Tim Shaw and his unique role of speedy sack machine, the defensive end is clearly the bright spot of this unit. Gaines saw action in all 13 games last season and started in nine of those contests. Evans played in 12 games and Odrick saw reps in 10. Aside from these experienced ends, Maybin has received consistently impressive reports out of practice and has shown "great leadership."

Throw in Latimore into the mix and the defensive end positions have an impressive amount of depth. Don't get me wrong, I like the makeup of the unit, but I think a lot of folks overlooked the essential role Tim Shaw played in terms of abilities and leadership.

Brennan: Since I already gushed over the ends, I'll go in a different direction here and say Larry Johnson. After taking over the defensive line in 2000, he has developed into one of the best position coaches in the nation. Scarcely a year goes by when he doesn't send a player or two to the NFL. And now top D-line recruits are flocking to PSU for the chance to play for him.

Every year I wonder when some program is going to be smart enough to make him an offer he can't refuse to become a coordinator or head coach. I'm surprised it has not happened yet.

Unexpected Impact

Harrington: I would not be surprised to see either Devon Still or Chimaeze Okoli get a shot at breaking into the rotation. While the defensive end position seems set with Gaines, Evans, Maybin and possibly Odrick, Larry Johnson could use one of his incoming freshmen to bolster depth. If not, an untimely injury or two could cause problems at end. I think Still, with his speed and aggressive style, could make an immediate impact on the line. However, a 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, Okoli could see early time in the tackle rotation.

Brennan: I expect both of the newcomers you mention to redshirt. Meanwhile, look for Latimore to push for playing time. The 2006 signee elected to grayshirt last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. He is said to be healthy now and, having enrolled at Penn State full time in January, will participate in spring ball. That will give him a huge edge over the other incoming freshmen. Latimore was an amazing athlete for his size (6-6, 240) while in high school. If he has maintained that athleticism now that he's bulked up to 260, he'll have every chance to make an impact in 2007.

It's Now Or Never

Harrington: In terms of a "now or never" player I have to go with Mike Lucian. Lucian has bounced from defense, back to offense, back to defense and is current at defensive tackle. He only saw limited action in the 47-0 drubbing of Temple last season – with no tackles. Given the losses inside the defensive line opportunity appears to be knocking, but he'll have to prove he has the strength, endurance and determination to break into the rotation this off-season.

Brennan: We've spent a lot of time talking about the defensive ends and have yet to mention redshirt junior Jed Hill. He had one tackle last season as a deep reserve and was not listed on the Outback Bowl depth chart. He only played in three games. With the glut of talent at end now, a position shift (perhaps to fullback, where he played in the spring of 2005) would seem to make sense.

Stay tuned to Fight On State as Brennan and Harrington continue to review each PSU football unit as the Nittany Lions prepare for spring practice.


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