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Khairi Fortt Looks To Help Penn State Defense Improve In 2011

Penn State's young linebacker hopes to key a turnaround against Alabama and the Nittany Lions' Big Ten foes.

On Saturdays, you can find Khairi Fortt flying to the football, trying to stop opposing offenses dead in their tracks at Beaver Stadium. The sophomore linebacker enjoys a different kind of flying on his own time, however.

As a child, his passion for aviation was fostered by an uncle who served in the United States Air Force. Fortt got the opportunity to go up in the air with his uncle a couple of times, and he's been hooked ever since.

"I love flying," Fortt said at Penn State's Lift For Life event in July. "I just really like to go fast. Play fast ... in an airplane going fast ... drive a car fast ..."

This affection for speed is fitting, as Fortt's career at Penn State has been on the fast track since he committed to the Nittany Lions as a four-star recruit in 2009. Last season, he became the first freshman to start at linebacker for Penn State since Dan Connor in 2004, and immediately made an impact on Penn State's defense.

He saw action in five games for the Lions in 2010, racking up 16 tackles. His breakout game came October 9 against Illinois at Beaver Stadium, when he registered 10 tackles for Penn State's injury-ravaged defense in a 33-13 Homecoming loss.

This quick start caught the attention of a revered member of Penn State's "Linebacker U" fraternity, a man who once wore Fortt's No. 11 jersey for the Lions. 

"I talked to LaVar Arrington [this offseason]," Fortt said at Lift For Life. "He was just telling me that he's going to keep in contact with me and show me the path so I can fill those shoes."

Fortt said Arrington, who waited about five minutes into the conversation to disclose his identity, has remained in contact since.

Filling Arrington's shoes will mean helping the Penn State defense improve in 2011. The Lions were fifth in the Big Ten in points against last season and sixth in yards against. They were especially susceptible against the run, yielding nearly 2,000 yards on the ground, good for just a seventh-place finish in the conference.

Penn State's problems went beyond the stats, though. The Lions also sometimes struggled with basics like tackling, with the 144 yards surrendered to Alabama running back Trent Richardson in Week 2 being a glaring example.

Fortt said the defense has been working in the offseason to correct this fundamental problem .

"We're just working on form tackling," Fortt said at Lift For Life. "We're all fast. We all can get there. We've just got to finish."

Fans will get a good idea what progress the Lions have made this offseason when Richardson lines up opposite them again September 10, when the Crimson Tide rolls into Happy Valley. The Alabama back bounced off Penn State defenders like a pinball during last season's matchup in Tuscaloosa.

Fortt, who said he's watched last season's game four times this offseason to study Alabama's schemes, is confident in the Lions' chances when kickoff before a whited out Beaver Stadium arrives.

"[We have] to play hard, and play smarter," Fortt said. "They have a lot of tendencies, so we just have to watch that. We didn't really lose that badly to them. We have a good chance of beating them."

Check out the video below for Fortt's description of his conversation with LaVar Arrington.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.