(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
The secondary and kicking games round out the spring preview, days before spring practice itself ends with the annual Blue-White Intrasquad scrimmage on April 16.
In our final installment of the Penn State Spring Preview, we take a look at the secondary, including the cornerbacks and safeties, and also the kickers. While the secondary returns all four starters from the end of the season, injuries and a thin depth chart tell another story in what has become a theme in the Penn State Spring Preview. Kicking the ball should be a strength for this team, though inexperience may cause issues. In case you missed them, here are Part One (QB, RB, FB), Part Two (WR, TE, OL) and Part Three (DE, DT, LB).
The Cast: D'Anton Lynn (senior), Stephon Morris (junior), Derrick Thomas (redshirt sophomore), Chaz Powell (redshirt senior), Mike Wallace (redshirt sophomore), Alex Kenney (redshirt freshman)
Looking Back: Not usually a strong spot for the Penn State defense, grading the cornerback play last year depends on which side of the defensive field you are looking at. Senior-to-be D'Anton Lynn (who scared some people in late-2009/early-2010 with rumors of a transfer) is almost certainly a future NFL player and was a bright spot in an injury-riddled secondary in 2010. On the other side, however, Derrick Thomas' off-field issues and Stephon Morris' spotty play made the second corner spot a weakness for Penn State, and opposing offenses weren't afraid to target Morris. Further, many fans took note of Morris' struggles at tackling, an issue that was not cornerback-specific. Is-he-or-isn't-he cornerback Chaz Powell saw action as well, but unless the staff decides to stick with one position for Powell and allow him to get into a rhythm with his teammates, Powell is not going to be as effective as he can be.
Looking Ahead: Lynn will remain a stronghold for the unit, but the other corner spot is essentially up for grabs. Stephon Morris and Chaz Powell are running with the first-team defense during spring practice while Lynn nurses some non-threatening back spasm issues. One of them will be pushed back to the second team once the regular season rolls around, joining Thomas on the two-deep. Alabama comes to town in Week Two, and even though QB Greg McIlroy and WR Julio Jones are gone, their passing attack will keep a sharp eye on whomever lines up opposite Lynn.
Likely Outcome: Lynn already has one spot, and Morris wins the spring practice battle with Powell and Thomas to become starter on September 3. As mentioned, Powell and Thomas round out the two-deep, but redshirt sophomore Mike Wallace and especially redshirt freshman Alex Kenney push for some playing time if some of the same issues appear in 2011. Also look for Kenney to be involved with the kick/punt return team.
Looking Back: As we saw in Part Three, the defensive end position is very thin thanks to injuries and other question marks. The only position that might be even more questionable is the safety position. Both Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino have dealt with injuries in the past, and concerns linger about their season-long durability. When Sukay went down with torn pectoral muscles in 2010, then redshirt freshman Malcolm Willis stepped in admirably, and doesn't look to relinquish his spot easily. Sukay and Willis are already splitting time opposite Astorino in spring practice.
Looking Ahead: With only four safeties currently on the roster (true freshman Adrian Amos arrives in the fall to add a little depth), injuries are the worst thing that could happen to this unit. The entire defense only managed 10 interceptions in 2010 (four from the safety position), a number Willis and Astorino hope to improve upon. Astorino is a solid, dependable safety, but is not a flashy, elite defensive back. What he lacks in talent, though, he makes up for in leadership, a greatly underrated quality. There have been some arguments for moving Willis to strong safety and letting Astorino and Sukay battle it out for free safety, and that does not seem like a bad move, considering Willis' play in 2010. With such little depth, every player listed above will see time, and even Amos could see some action if the safety play is not up to standard.
Likely Outcome: Willis holds on to his spot that he took from Sukay, and Astorino grabs the other safety spot. Sukay and junior fan-favorite Stephen Obeng-Agyapong round out the two-deep, but Amos' arrival in the fall puts their (at least Obeng-Agyapong's) spot at risk. One injury could have catastrophic consequences, so hold your breath.
The Cast: Anthony Fera (redshirt sophomore), Sam Ficken (freshman)
Looking Back: The surprisingly dependable Colin Wagner is gone, so the role of placekicker is once again up for grabs. In 2010, Wagner connected on every PAT and made 20 of 25 FG attempts. Anthony Fera handled the kickoff and punting duties, partly because of his strong leg but also because the kicker/punter position last year was very thin. PSU has since brought in a few walk-ons (Alex Butterworth, Russell Nye, and A.J. Firestone) and one scholarship kicker (Sam Ficken) to make sure a reliable leg is always available. However, replacing Wagner's productivity won't be an easy task, and a solid, reliable kicker is an underrated commodity in college football.
Looking Ahead: Ficken comes in with a lot of fanfare, while many fans are still hoping to see Fera's reportedly strong placekicking leg on long field goal attempts. Fera finished No. 51 in the country in net punting, with a gross punting average of just over 40 yards on 59 punts (some of these are credited to Alex Butterworth, filling in for Fera when the redshirt freshman had an appendectomy at the end of the season). On kickoffs, Fera showed his strength in 2010 (19 touchbacks, good for No. 13 in FBS) and should keep those duties in 2011.
Likely Outcome: Anthony Fera keeps his punting and kickoff duties, while Sam Ficken comes in and becomes a four-year starter at Penn State. With Fera and the three walk-ons mentioned, the Nittany Lions have options should Ficken wind up struggling.
And that concludes the spring preview. As you've seen, Penn State has many injuries, off-the-field issues, and other question marks on both sides of the ball. But you'll have trouble finding a team in the country that doesn't have to deal with some sort of issue, so players and fans alike cannot use these issues as an excuse. What we can do is look to the positives on the team and hope that the rest of the issues work themselves out with hard work and solid coaching.
Penn State's spring practice concludes with the annual Blue-White Game on April 16 in Beaver Stadium. SBN Pittsburgh will have a recap the week thereafter, as well as any news that comes out of Happy Valley, both good (possible commits from a huge recruiting weekend) and bad (possible transfers at the conclusion of spring practice).