The linebacking corps continues to be one of the most interesting units to keep an eye on heading into spring practice. Although the Nittany Lions appear to lose a lot with the departure of all-time leading tackler Dan Connor, the unit has impressive depth upon which to draw. As one observer told us, "Danny's departure is a loss; he wasn't the most vocal guy, but he was the guy that the younger players would watch and emulate. Luckily Sean Lee is built in the same mold — maybe even to a greater degree with his borderline obsession with his technique. But [Sean] also brings that vocal, in-your-face approach the team needs. He is more of a Paul Posluszny-type leader. Sean and Paul have to work their [butts] off to improve, where Dan just had pure natural ability."
With the middle spot vacated once again by a departing captain heading to the NFL, the position has some question marks. As we reported in early February, Dontey Brown is expected to transfer, so the likely candidates vying for the inside position are Tyrell Sales, Chris Colasanti, Shane Thompson and Lee. "Yeah, [position coach Ron Vanderlinden] is considering moving Sean inside," an observer explained. "He feels having an experienced, sharp guy in the middle is key for the whole defense's success. The ability of the middle man to read and adjust the coverage in real time is essential. Sean has the size (at about 235 pounds), he just needs to get a feel for the position if he makes the shift."
The staff also likes the potential Colasanti brings to the unit with his combination of size, speed and instincts. "Chris makes good reads, although he has to get his adjustments down and understand when he needs to shift the wings and safeties."
One name in the mix to add depth to the middle 'backer spot is Shaine Thompson. "Shaine is a bit undersized (at 6-foot, 205 pounds), but he's very athletic and physical. His aggressive streak really helps him in run-stopping drills and he's quick to drop into coverage. The question will be about his ability to make adjustments out there." Thompson could end up as part of the nickel and goal-line packages.
In terms of the outside positions, with Navorro Bowman still held out of workouts due to a suspension (but expected to return), there are questions as to how the two-deep on the wings will shake out. "If (Sean) Lee moves inside, I expect (Tyrell) Sales to stay outside, and vice-versa," one observer said. "However, this hasn't happened and is just in the preliminary assessment phase."
Others who are expected to be in the two-deep mix for the outside positions are Bani Gbadyu, Andrew Dailey, Josh Hull, Nate Stupar and true freshman Mike Mauti. Thompson could also end up bolstering the wings of the unit.
Gbadyu "has really come along after a rough start (to his career)," according to one observer. "He's been used in specialized situations, but in the latter part of the (2007) season he made some significant improvements in his game." Gbadyu's signature play was in the Alamo Bowl, busting through the defensive line to snuff out Texas A&M's red-zone option run.
Dailey has seen many of his practice reps at the "Fritz" outside position. He has shown "good speed and instincts" and is "decisive with his reads." Lee has worked with him on the technique to play outside and has "helped him to settle down a bit on his game." He's shown good engagement technique on tackles but needs to "finish the take-down. He gets in there and hits the target, but he needs to focus on the take-down."
Josh Hull saw limited first-team time throughout last season. Observers have raved about Hull, a walk-on, who made an impact on special teams early in 2007. Some feel he has the potential to earn a scholarship eventually and "should provide depth to the unit."
Stupar received consistently high marks from practice observers last season for his scout team performances. In fact, Stupar was said to be impressive when playing the part of Illinois linebacker J. Lehman. Stupar shadowed Lee, seeing primarily scout team reps at the "Sam" 'backer position. As one observer said, "He's one of those textbook guys [Vanderlinden] loves; they come in with a great foundation, but most importantly they are coachable — they want to learn — and they have great humility." He has shown good all-around strength and is "one of those guys who is borderline nuts about workouts."
If the unit weren't deep enough, PSU added Mauti as a Class of 2008 early enrollee in January. One observer described Mauti, saying, "He's really put together — he doesn't look like a true freshman. Actually I think some of the guys were confused as to who he was at first. He's got the Chris Colasanti-type build. He's not as big as Chris, but he's really solid." Mauti is at about 225 pounds and has really "attacked the workouts head-on." His overall mobility in early run sessions has been good. "He carries his frame well — he has a good stride, although the conditioning will help him to improve here this [off-season]." Mauti has shown good movement in early agility drills. "He's pretty nimble, which is what [Vanderlinden] loves to see in his guys."
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