99 times out of 100, the Nittany Lions' strongest unit is their defense. A glance at the offense, with its strength at running back and wide receiver (and even with the question mark at quarterback), might initially make it look like this is that rare one time in 100. In the big picture, though, the defense should be the backbone of the Penn State team.
The defensive line discussion must begin with Larry Johnson, Sr., the position coach whose talent production is unmatched. It seems like Johnson produces a first round talent every season, and last year was no different, with Jared Odrick being selected by the Miami Dolphins with the 28th pick. Replacing Odrick will not be easy, but Johnson has Eric Latimore, Devon Still, Ollie Ogbu, and many others are waiting for their chance to become household names throughout not only the state but the country. Probably the most exciting aspect of this squad is that it is simultaneously young AND deep.
Player to Watch: Jack Crawford - The native Englishman did not start playing organized football until relatively late in life, but Lion fans are sure glad he did. With 31 tackles and 5.5 sacks a year ago, Crawford will be the frontrunner for title of "Next Larry Johnson, Sr. Star Defensive Lineman."
Penn State is Linebacker U, right? But what happens when all three starting linebackers are gone from a stellar 2009 unit? In the case of Penn State's 2010 squad, you simply reload with highly talented players who have shown flashes of greatness already. Josh Hull, Navorro Bowman, and Sean Lee (2009's three leading tacklers) are gone to the NFL. Three experienced players are ready to step into the spotlight, while even more youngsters are ready to fill in if and when needed. The likely starting lineup on September 4 will be Chris Colassanti, Bani Gbadyu, and Nate Stupar (with Mike Mauti also in the mix). However, with skilled reserves like Mike Yancich, Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt ready to step up at a moment's notice, fans should not worry much about replacing three highly productive starters from a year ago.
Player to Watch: Anybody whose first name is Mike - Colassanti and Gbadyu get the nod because of seniority, but watch for Mike Mauti, Mike Yancich (from Trinity H.S.), and Mike Hull (from Canon-Mac H.S.) to make an impact (although, depending on a redshirt decision, Hull's time to shine may be delayed).
In its preview of Penn State as an opponent, the SBN blog Black Heart Gold Pants pretty much summed up the secondary:
The bulk of Penn State's secondary returns intact, led by the safety tandem of Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino. D'Anton Lynn's expected to start at one CB spot, with Stephon Morris the favorite to start at the other CB spot. Astorino led the way with 62 tackles (1 TFL), five passes defended (one interception), and two fumbles recovered. Sukay had 41 tackles, 13 passes defended (two interceptions), and two fumbles recovered. Lynn had 35 tackles (3.5 TFL) and five passes defended. No other member of the secondary had any stats of significance, really. They had a top 20 pass defense a year ago, holding opposing offenses to the same number of passing touchdowns as Iowa (nine). There's little reason to suspect that they won't have a very solid pass defense once again.
While Black Heart Gold Pants is right that "no other member of the secondary had any stats of significance," that doesn't mean there aren't other players. In what seems to be a recurring theme for the defense, the backups are highly skilled younger players. With three top ten teams on the schedule in 2010, the secondary will have to improve even more on its recent showing (the Top 20 stat is less impressive when one considers the quarterbacks PSU played against in 2009). However, fans should be confident that this group of players will be a strength.
Player to Watch: Chaz Powell - Recruited as a defensive back and moved to wide receiver, Powell is back on the defensive side of the ball. If anything happens to any of the starters, or if they slip, Powell can provide ample replacement power.
The 2010 defense will be strong, but it will begin the season as a relatively green unit. The front seven will need to replace some highly productive players, but with any Penn State defense, it's more about reloading than merely replacing. Unfortunately, the team won't have much time to gel before traveling to Alabama in Week Two, but overall, the defensive unit will be strong, and will likely keep the team in games if the offense begins to struggle.
Early Prediction: Ten wins was set as the goal in the offensive preview; that prediction has not changed, but you can thank the defense for at least two of those wins. This squad is tough. Watch for one or more of Crawford, Stupar, Mauti, Morris or Lynn to appear on end-of-the-year award watch lists.