WITH THE SEASON OPENER RAPIDLY APPROACHING, THE DEFFENSE'S GREATEST CONCERN IS
BRENNAN: The secondary. I know this unit struggled against USC in the Rose Bowl. But generally speaking, the Nittany Lion DBs played well in 2008. Though clearly not an overly athletic bunch, it compensated with great team play. The communication among the backs was usually very good. And that's the issue this year. I have no doubt the four new starters, on a whole, will be more athletic than the 2008 first-teamers. However, how will they work as a unit? To me, that is the most important question facing this defense.
HARRINGTON: The secondary makes the most sense, but I am going to go with the defensive ends. With the departure of Aaron Maybin, Josh Gaines and Maurice Evans, the Lions have some serious work to do at the positions. Given the young talent in the program and Larry Johnson's propensity to develop players, that concern may not be widespread. But Jerome Hayes is coming off an ACL injury and the unit has a couple of promising but untested players in Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham. The hot commodity this off-season has been Jack Crawford, who saw light duty last season. But there is still a question as to whether his size and speed combination can serve as a consistent pressure point on the pocket.
MEANWHILE, THE DEFENSE'S GREATEST STRENGTH IS
HARRINGTON: With Sean Lee back I am going to give the nod to the linebackers. Lee teamed with a combination of Navorro Bowman, Bani Gbadyu, Michael Mauti, Josh Hull or even Mike Yancich should be a major asset for the defense, providing size and speed to the coverage.
BRENNAN: The tackles. I can't imagine anyone in the nation being more loaded at the positions than the Nittany Lions. Three players -- All-Big Ten pick Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma -- have significant starting experience. Devon Still and Chima Okoli are towering underclassmen with loads of potential. And redshirt freshman Brandon Ware figures to be a serious space-eater if, ironically enough, he can drop a few more pounds. The talent here, coupled with the stockpile of outstanding athletes at linebacker, ought to mitigate any issues PSU may have at defensive end.
THE DEFENSIVE PLAYER PENN STATE CAN LEAST AFFORD TO LOSE IS
BRENNAN: Safety Drew Astorino. I know this is pretty strong praise for a redshirt sophomore with exactly three career starts -- two as a nickel and one as a free safety. But now that he is THE man at free safety, Astorino is being called upon to be the leader of the rebuilt secondary. He will call coverages and make pre-snap adjustments. I'm not about to say Odrick or Bowman or Lee are easily replaceable. However, all three play at positions brimming with talent, much of it experienced. So if any of them happen to be lost, someone ought to be able to step in an do an adequate job. In my view, replacing Astorino -- in terms of his physical prowess and his ability to make calls and such -- would be a tremendous hit to the defense.
HARRINGTON: Bowman. Sure, Penn State has a mob of linebackers who can step in and play the position. But Bowman is unique in that he adds a spark that can ignite a game-changing performance. Intense, aggressive, fast and furious all describe Bowman's ability on the field. Again, the defense would be able to plug in a capable player, but it would lose a major impact point for the squad if Bowman were sidelined.
ONE DEFENSIVE PLAYER POISED FOR A BREAKOUT SEASON IS
HARRINGTON: Mauti. The Cajun Connor, as some have nicknamed him, has received rave off-season reviews from FOS observers and even Paterno. Many people within the program compare him favorably with former Lions Dan Connor (hence the nickname) and Paul Posluszny. Mauti saw action in all 13 games last season, primarily on special teams, grabbing 26 tackles and forcing a fumble. This off-season, he has improved his size, speed and feel for the game. He could be the next in the long line of great 'backers from Linebacker U.
BRENNAN: I'm going to go out on a limb here and say cornerback A.J. Wallace. Sure, there have been legitimate questions about his toughness and durability, and they have me a bit nervous while making this pick. But Wallace's size and athletic gifts are undeniable -- had he stayed healthy, he could have been PSU's best corner in 2008 -- so I'm predicting he is going to pull it all together and have an outstanding senior season. Which brings us too
IT IS NOW OR NEVER FOR
BRENNAN: Wallace. This is a classic example of a player receiving too much too soon. Wallace saw significant action on offense, defense and special teams as a true freshman in 2006. But his career has been a rollercoaster ride since then. He was outstanding as a backup defensive back and set records as a return man in 2007. In 2008, in part due to injury and illness, he was beaten out for a starting cornerback job by Lydell Sargeant and he disappeared from the return game. Even after wins, he could often be spotted walking off the field sulking, looking like someone stole his puppy. With that sort of attitude, it was easy to see why Wallace couldn't climb past Sargeant, even when he got healthy. Having said all of that, Wallace has stuck with the program and the program has stuck with him. He has the size and speed to play at the next level. Now he just has to prove he has the attitude for it, too. I think that happens this year.
HARRINGTON: Cornerback Knowledge Timmons. With blazing speed out of high school, PSU fans were thrilled when he opted to stay in state instead of heading to South Carolina, West Virginia or Boston College. However, although he saw limited action in all 13 contests last year, he has yet to live up to his advanced billing. With the departure of the entire starting secondary, Timmons has a significant opportunity to close out his career on a high note.
THE TRUE FRESHMAN WHO WILL MAKE THIS BIGGEST IMPACT ON DEFENSE IN 2009 IS
HARRINGTON: Safety Gerald Hodges. Enrolling early with a whirlwind of hype, observers were shocked that Hodges was really the age of a high school senior given his impressive physique. With the holes in the secondary and neither Nick Sukay nor Andrew Dailey seizing the strong safety job in the spring, Hodges has the perfect opportunity to make an immediate impact.
BRENNAN: Can't argue that pick. But I have to come up with something unique, so I'll go with defensive back Darrell Givens. We've addressed the secondary at length in this discussion, but have not really talked about its lack of depth. That's where Givens could be a factor. I could see him making a run for playing time at either corner spot or at nickel. He is fast and a big-hitter, and ought to be a factor in 2009.
A KEY STATISTIC FOR THE PENN STATE DEFENSE WILL BE
BRENNAN: Opponents' third-down conversions. Last season, Penn State led the Big Ten in this department, allowing foes to convert less than a third (32.3 percent) of their third downs. Because of that, opponents had nearly twice as many punts (81 to 42) as the Nittany Lions. The strong play on third down also allowed PSU to lead the conference in time of possession at 31:43 per game. More of the same this year would be a plus for the program.
HARRINGTON: Passing yardage allowed. Penn State should be solid on the run with size up front and speed on the wings. All in all the front seven should be a solid force. The question comes down to the secondary, particularly after the Rose Bowl performance. Last season Penn State gave up 186.85 passing yards per game, which ranked No. 27 nationally. Many teams will look to the sky given the run-stopping power up front and the question marks about the Nittany Lion secondary, so this number will be telling.