SPRING FAB FOUR: Defense

Get the lowdown on a quartet of defensive players who turned heads during spring practice. Who made Fab Four grade?

With several Penn State defensive stars now off to the NFL, like Aaron Maybin, Josh Gaines, Mark Rubin, Lydell Sargeant and Maurcie Evans, the Penn State coaches have been in search of replacements to step in to make an impact in the fall.

Here are four players who observers felt stood out in spring drills.

Michael Mauti, LB: In regard to Mauti, veteran linebacker Sean Lee recently said, "I am excited to see what he can do. He hustles and works hard and is humble, but has a ton of ability." During the spring Mauti saw reps at both outside positions, but as of the end of spring practice, he was seeing first-team reps at weakside linebacker.

As one observer said of Mauti, he "is just a beast and seems to get better and better. Just when you think he's struggling with an aspect of his game he buckles down and nails it." As another observer explained, "He's incredibly disciplined and tough as nails — he's one of those guys built in the Linebacker U. mold — like Posluszny, Connor and Lee."

Called "the Cajun Connor" by some observers, Mauti has drawn comparisons specifically to Dan Connor for his discipline, build and overall aggression. "He's one of those guys who plays nuts — he can just turn it on on the field," an observer said. Mauti has been called the "best of the bunch" among the squads young stable of linebackers.

Jack Crawford, DE: Crawford's physique, said to be "really put together" and "solid as a rock," has had a lot of observers buzzing. Far from an unknown, having played all 12 games last season, Crawford is being looked upon as one of the top defensive ends.

"[Coach Larry Johnson] is putting his rotation together, but with Maybin, Evans and Gaines gone, Jack is one of the few guys with decent game experience. He's quick and has gotten sharper off the edge, but Larry has really been pushing him to pull everything together to give him a go-to guy in the pass rush," an observer said.

Said to have "the ability to tear into the edge" with his footwork and progressing technique, "he's got a good rip technique and has been working on his control to tighten his pursuits so he isn't out wide," an observer said.

The consensus is that with a "colossal" opportunity in front of him, Crawford is "doing the right things." As one observer said, "Gaines leaving was a sure thing, I think some maybe expected Aaron or Mo to leave, but having all three depart gives him a runway to the starting job if he keeps it up."

Nick Sukay, S: Plagued with injuries early in his career, Sukay has seen his healthiest extended period of time at PSU this off-season. As one observer explained, "He's probably gotten in more work this spring then during the entire rest of his career here."

Sukay split first-team reps with Andrew Dailey in the spring at strong safety. With the departure of Rubin, the secondary is looking for a replacement at the SS position. Sukay has been impressive with his reads and coverage technique, but the question keeps coming back to his durability. "If he can stay healthy it'll really help out the depth [at safety]," an observer said.

Many observers feel Sukay has the edge at the starting strong safety job, "if he can just show that he's more durable than he has been."

Kevion Latham, DE: One player who has not received much notice (due to Jack Crawford's emergence) but who has received strong words or praise when he breaks into the discussion is Latham. "I think they would like him to add some size, but they like where he's brought his technique so far," one observer explained.

Last season Latham saw his reps primarily with the scout team at defensive end. Since then, this off-season he has moved up to see a significant number of first-team reps. Quick off the line, Latham has "gotten his endurance up and is working on his feet." He has also improved at "shedding blocks."

With Eric Latimore pushing Latham, observers feel Johnson has the makings of a "decent rotation," although an inexperienced one. "If Jerome Hayes makes it back without too much of a drop, it could be a major pass rush. It's tough to say until you see it in game-action, though," an observer said.

FAB FROSH BONUS

Gerald Hodges, S: If there is one early enrollee who turned heads from the outset, it was Hodges. "I am not sure I buy that he's a true freshman," one observer joked. "He is built like a tank and hits like one," another observer shared.

Others described him with terms like "workhorse," "beast," "truck" and "brickwall." Through the off-season and into the spring, he has shown 4.5-range speed and "some good instincts" with his reads. He also plays aggressive and is a "big-time" hitter.

Hodges is still working on picking up the playbook, but has shown "promise on his reads." The coaches have also been "working with him on picking his pursuit angles and understanding releases in the coverage."

Overall, observers like what Hodges has shown and the fact he has made progress in the short time he has been on campus. Many are still taking a wait-and-see approach related to his potential impact on the secondary, but "I am cautiously optimistic Gerald could break into the two-deep during the preseason if he keeps it up. I think he'll be pushing a lot of his teammates who are looking over their shoulder at him," an observer said.

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