Penn State's front seven has some positives and negatives, but the best part is the return of Linebacker U.
As we move on to Part Three of our four-part Penn State preview series, we take a look at the two-headed monster that is Penn State's front seven. Maybe that descriptor is a bit misleading; the linebacker unit, once again, should be a monster of phenomenal, young talent that can hawk the ball all over the field. Up front, however, injuries, off-the-field issues, and a lack of cohesion make the defensive line one of the big question marks heading into 2011. Here are Part One (quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks) and Part Two (wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen) in case you missed them.
The Cast: Jack Crawford (senior), Eric Latimore (redshirt senior), Sean Stanley (junior), Kyle Baublitz (sophomore), C.J. Olaniyan (redshirt freshman), Pete Massaro (redshirt junior - candidate for 6th year in 2012)
Looking Back: Defensive end was a position Penn State fans grumbled about in 2010. Many had high hopes for Crawford, Latimore and Massaro, but the unit could just never come together and perform to the high standards. Containment was spotty at best, the pass rush was inconsistent, and the ferociousness that fans have come to expect from Larry Johnson Sr.'s crew was missing. Further, the injury bug has been especially contagious among the defensive ends recently; Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore each missed plenty of playing time in 2010 while Pete Massaro has already been lost for the 2011 season.
Looking Ahead: With Massaro's unit-leading 37 tackles and 3.5 sacks from 2010 out, and Crawford and Latimore sitting out spring practice while they nurse injuries, the depth chart is extremely thin. DT DaQuan Jones and Class of 2011 early enrollee OT/DT Anthony Alosi have been moved to the end spot, just so the position has warm bodies to rotate in spring practice. Their time there is not expected to last past spring practice. Sophomore Kyle Baublitz and redshirt freshman C.J. Olaniyan will be thrust into starring roles even after Crawford and Latimore return. Larry Johnson Sr. is notorious for rotating a deep crop of players at each line position, so don't be surprised if one of the three Class of 2011 recruits at DE (Shawn Oakman, Deion Barnes, Jordan Kerner) sees playing time.
Likely Outcome: Crawford and Latimore return to lock up the starting spots. Stanley and Baublitz/Olaniyan make up the two-deep but see significant playing time. With the depth chart so thin and short on experience, defensive end will certainly be a question mark heading into 2011. But if anyone can get a unit up to playing speed, it's Larry Johnson Sr.
The Cast: Devon Still (redshirt senior), Jordan Hill (junior), DaQuan Jones (sophomore), James Terry (redshirt junior), Brandon Ware (redshirt junior), Evan Hailes (redshirt freshman), Luke Graham (redshirt freshman)
Looking Back: Still and Ollie Ogbu were steady in the middle of the defensive line in 2010, leading the defensive linemen in tackles (87 combined) while Still's 4.0 sacks led the team. While Ogbu is gone, possibly to the NFL, Still should anchor a talented defensive tackle position. Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones saw significant playing time, and are hold some promise heading into 2011. Brandon Ware has had more trouble with classroom and attitude issues off the field than opposing offensive lines on the field; Ware is running out of chances at a successful Penn State career.
Looking Ahead: Filling Ogbu's shoes won't be easy, and the leading candidates are already fighting it out in camp. As mentioned, Jones has been moved to DE for the spring, but don't be surprised to see him as the opening day starter opposite Still at the defensive tackle spot. Terry and Hill will round out the two-deep, but with Ware, Hailes, and Graham (a converted offensive lineman) in the mix, the unit is much deeper than the defensive ends. Hopefully the tackles can eat up some blockers and allow the ends to get some push this year.
Likely Outcome: Still and Jones start the year, but as is customary on a Larry Johnson Sr. line, all four of the players on the two-deep see significant time. Ware has a productive but not stellar season, and Hailes and Graham gain valuable experience throughout the year.
The Cast: Michael Mauti (redshirt junior), Gerald Hodges (junior), Nate Stupar (redshirt senior), Glenn Carson (sophomore), Mike Hull (redshirt freshman), Khairi Fortt (sophomore), Dakota Royer (sophomore), Brad Bars (redshirt freshman)
Looking Back: Head coach Joe Paterno has received both praise and criticism for his long-held preference of seniority over talent, but 2010 was an example of why that philosophy can be greatly flawed. While I'm sure they are nice people, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu's departures are addition by subtraction for the Penn State linebacker corps. Colasanti led the team in tackles, but that can be misleading; neither player registered a sack and both were routinely out of position or over-pursuing. Given Penn State's stable of young, talented linebackers, many fans were frustrated at Paterno's insistence on playing the two seniors.
Looking Ahead: The return of Linebacker U has arrived. After at least a one-year hiatus, the two-deep roster for Penn State's linebackers is the best it has been in quite some time. Middle linebacker Mike "Ragin' Cajun" Mauti will balance a starting unit that is high on both experience and skill. Stupar, Fortt and Canon-Mac's Mike Hull should be great at the outside linebacker rotation, while Glenn Carson should be Mauti's primary backup in the middle. Word out of spring camp is that junior Gerald Hodges is an absolute beast and opposing offenses will know No. 6 by the end of the day.
Likely Outcome: Honestly, you could put any three of the mentioned cast members on the field and the unit would be better than the vast majority of teams in college football. On September 3, Hodges, Mauti and Stupar should line up on the first set of defensive plays. The remaining linebackers will see a lot of playing time, since keeping that kind of talent off the field is hard to do. Stupar is most susceptible to losing his starting position, but barring some unforeseen bad play by this unit, I wouldn't expect much change in the starting makeup.
The defensive line is a dichotomy - the ends should struggle again this year, thanks to injuries and a thin depth chart, while the tackles should be a steady, reliable unit. Behind them, the linebackers are once again the pride of the defense. The expectations are so high they are almost impossible to meet. However, I certainly look forward to seeing how close they get.
Stay tuned next week when we finish out the spring preview with the secondary and kicking units. Then, on April 16, the annual Blue-White Weekend will take place, and SBN Pittsburgh will have a recap the following week.