TYM: Defense Breakdown

Brennan and Harrington size up the Penn State defense heading into the 2010 season in this occasional series from Fight On State.

Welcome to the latest installment of Take Your Marks, the occasional series where FOS staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan discuss and debate topics relevant to Penn State football. In this offering they tackle the Nittany Lion defense.

What is your biggest positional concern for the defense?

BRENNAN: Having lost three players to the NFL Draft, the obvious answer here is linebacker. At the end of spring practice, Joe Paterno said he did not view this as a potential trouble spot. And I could see where he was coming from. Penn State has recruited so well at the position in recent years that it is still loaded with talent. But will anyone step up and provide the intangibles the defense received from players like Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull? The other reason to be slightly nervous is because the best linebacker on the team, Mike Mauti, has not participated in contact since blowing out a knee last August. He is said to be well ahead of schedule in his rehab. But we won't know if he is really back to 100 percent until he starts hitting again. With all of the raw material available, I'm anxious to see how this group comes together in 2010, but won't be surprised if there are a few growing pains early in the season.

HARRINGTON: Linebacker seems to be loaded, but losing Lee, Bowman and Hull leaves a major void. While I am concerned with the pure ability the defense loses with their departure, I am more concerned with the leadership the unit has lost. Linebacker is the cornerstone of the PSU defense, so it'll be critical to get the unit into a rhythm quickly. Reports are Mauti is healthy and ready, and given his frame of mind and determination I expect he will give the unit a major boost. The question is how that knee reacts to getting back into action. Ron Vanderlinden certainly seems to have the horses, but none of them have been saddled up to run an entire race yet, so seeing how they react and respond both individually and as a trio will be an essential component to the defense getting up to speed quickly.

What or who was the biggest surprise on defense during the spring?

HARRINGTON: Believe it or not, I liked how the corner positions shaped up. Sure, you have some young guys in the mix, but a two deep of D'Anton Lynn, Chaz Powell, Stephon Morris and Derrick Thomas seems to give the secondary nice depth with some speed and veteran experience. That is not to say I don't have concerns with the secondary, but I think the unit has a solid base to build from. In particular the move of Powell (from wideout) and the emergence of Morris provide a nice boost to the coverage game.

BRENNAN: I really liked the way the defensive line adjusted to the loss of tackle Jared Odrick, the All-American and first-round NFL Draft pick. I didn't expect the top unit to look so dominant, even if it was usually playing against a No. 1 offensive line that was being reshuffled. A lot of that had to do with the emergence of Devon Still as Odrick's replacement. Still had been slowed by injuries through the early part of his career but really seemed to put all of that behind him in the spring.

With the three starting linebackers gone - not to mention Odrick - who do you see stepping into the leadership role(s) on defense?

BRENNAN: This is one of my biggest concerns with the defense. There are a lot of strong character players on the unit. But will any of them show the sort of dynamic leadership Lee did? One player who has a chance to get there is safety Drew Astorino, but only if he returns to top form after struggling at times last year due to a shoulder injury and then having the joint surgically repaired in the off-season. It is difficult to be a leader if you are not at full go. A linebacker is usually the most natural leader of a defense, just because those positions are in the middle of all of the action. We saw Paul Posluszny pass the baton to Dan Connor who passed it on to Lee. But this year, the top 'backers will (and should) be focused more on becoming every-down players than being leaders of the entire unit, at least until they become comfortable in their new roles.

HARRINGTON: I believe we'll see a few leaders emerge. Astorino is a veteran and has been a take-charge type of player. Unfortunately, he missed spring drills recovering from shoulder surgery, so the defense didn't have the full benefit of his leadership, although he was around practice. I also think Mauti understands he needs to emerge, and can see Chris Colasanti step into that role. He hasn't had the career he has hoped for to this point, but word is he's a guy who pushes those around him. I also expect Ollie Ogbu and Jack Crawford to provide leadership to the defensive line in terms of both vocal and show-me-don't-tell-me direction for the unit.

Which defensive player do you see making the strongest push for All-America honors?

HARRINGTON: I have to go with Crawford, the defensive end. He's emerging into a fierce pass-rusher who has great strength and power, but is also progressing with his speed and block-shedding skills. If he continues to progress on his rip technique he's going to provide headaches for quarterbacks, forcing some rushed passes that could become interception opportunities. Aside from this he has a great story as a Brit who barely played the sport in Europe. This could result in some great added national press with a human interest story -- a potential All-American Englishman.

BRENNAN: I agree that Crawford is the most obvious choice. But since you already picked him, I'll go out on a limb a bit and say Mauti. He has the size, speed and attitude to follow in the footsteps of Posluszny, Connor, Lee and Bowman. There may be a few mental hurdles early in the season as he returns from the knee injury. In the end, however, I'll bet he finishes among the Big Ten leaders in tackles.

Which young defensive player should fans keep an eye on in 2010?

BRENNAN: Morris. In my view, by the end of last season he was Penn State's best cornerback and may well have been the team's best defensive back. Though undersized, he has a great nose for the ball, is fearless in run support and is athletic enough to cover bigger players. He also exudes confidence, which is key for any good cornerback.

HARRINGTON: Morris is a great pick. I am going to go with linebacker Gerald Hodges. Sure, he saw action in 11 games last year, grabbing three tackles, but with a shift to linebacker from safety and the departure of all three 2009 starters, there's a huge opportunity for Hodges to make an early impact on the defense and live up to the rave reviews he's received early on in his career.


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