As Penn State prepares to open spring practice on March 26 in Happy Valley, SB Nation Pittsburgh is breaking the roster down by position, taking a look at who the Nittany Lions have lost from last year's lineups, who they'll return and who they've added through the 2012 recruiting class. On the menu for Friday, defensive linemen.
Leaving The Roster
Devon Still is a projected first round pick in this April's NFL Draft for a reason: he was a game-breaker for Penn State at defensive tackle. His stats were excellent 2011 as he finished with 55 tackles, including 17.0 for a loss to go with 4.5 sacks on his way to being nominated for a number of postseason awards. He brought more to the table than just his numbers, though. He frequently attracted double teams, which opened up space for fellow defensive lineman, namely fellow DT Jordan Hill, to make plays, too. He truly made everyone along the front better, which might make him the single most difficult player to replace on this team.
Jack Crawford never quite turned into the dominant force (see Maybin, Aaron, 2008) many hoped he could be, but he was still pretty effective for Penn State. He finished 2011 with a team-leading 6.5 sacks to go with 7.5 tackles for a loss, so he leaves big, if not Still-sized shoes to fill at defensive end.
Eric Latimore battled injuries throughout his Penn State career but was a solid option at defensive end when healthy.
The aforementioned Hill got an opportunity and made the most of it last season, putting up 59 tackles, including 8.0 for a loss, to go with 3.5 sacks as Still's wing man on the inside of the defensive front. With Still on the way out, however, Hill will have to use the spring to figure out how to play without the dominating force next to him. He won't be expected to become the force Still was, but he's going to have to get used to more double teams and attention from offensive schemes if he's going to be successful once again.
Sean Stanley finally overcame his off-field problems to put together an encouraging season at defensive end in 2011. He racked up 30 tackles (6.5 for loss) and 4.5 sacks coming off the edge and even picked off a pass, numbers that indicate he could be a real candidate for a breakout in 2012. Like Hill, however, Stanley is going to have to use the spring to adapt to the losses of Crawford and Latimore, older guys who really took pressure off of him.
Others Returning, Looking To Step Up
The guys behind Still, Crawford, Latimore, Hill and Stanley didn't see a whole lot of action in 2011, so it's hard to gauge where, exactly, they stand heading into spring practice. With starting jobs at defensive end and defensive tackle available, however, look for the competition to be fierce between guys like James Terry, DaQuan Jones, Evan Hailes and C.J. Olaniyan.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., a veteran of Joe Paterno's staff who will stay on with new coach Bill O'Brien, was able to bring in a pretty big stable of new talent despite the instablity caused by the coaching change last November.
The headliner is Jamil Pollard, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound tackle prospect. His speed (5.1 seconds in the 40-yard dash) combined with a stout frame probably gives him the best chance of any of the new recruits to play early.
Derek Dowrey (Winchester, Va.), Austin Johnson (Richland, N.J.) and Evan Schwan (Harrisburg) will all probably need some time to develop, though they boast upside, too. Schwan, especially, could have some legitimate potential. He had a monster senior season after a torn labrum cost him much of his junior season and kept him off the recruiting radar of most major programs.
This unit will lose some big names, but with guys like Hill and Stanley set to return, there's every reason to believe the group can be effective again next season. The two returning starters have the bulk of the experience, so it'll be their job in the spring to help bring the greener guys along while also preparing to take on more responsibility. For the other guys, drills will be a full-on battle to impress the new staff and show they belong in the rotation come the fall.