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O’Brien, Penn State Emphasize Secondary

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Adrian Amos is the only proven playmaker returning to Penn State's secondary, but he's being moved from cornerback to safety. Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images.
Adrian Amos is the only proven playmaker returning to Penn State's secondary, but he's being moved from cornerback to safety. Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images.

Let’s face it, Penn State has always been about its front seven on defense.

No, really, its former coaching staff largely ignored the secondary for the better part of the last decade.

Don’t believe me?

While only three former Penn State defensive backs are in the NFL, 17 former defensive linemen and linebackers are on 11 NFL rosters.  All three defensive backs (Stephen Morris, Justin King and Chaz Powell) are expected to be cut or placed on the practice squad by September.

But times are changing under Bill O’Brien.

The U in Linebacker U could mean understaffed as the team has six linebackers under scholarship. On the flip side, the team has 14 defensive backs under scholarship, seven of them true or redshirt freshmen.

O’Brien also is shaking up this year’s secondary and changing players’ roles.

Two players, Adrian Amos and Trevor Williams, changed positions, but are expected to start. One returning starter, Malcolm Willis, might be a back-up to a Ryan Keiser, who has never started a game. Another returning starter, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, may be a back-up to both safety positions. Jordan Lucas has one collegiate tackle and could make a move to safety, but Penn State wants him to be a starting cornerback.

Why the sudden changes to a solid, but not special, secondary?

Let’s take a closer look.

Adrian Amos was relatively ineffective in the first half of last season. While he didn’t give up many big plays, he didn’t make any big plays either. Then, the last four games in which he played, he intercepted two passes and defended three more. Now, he is taking over at strong safety while more athletic players fight to fill the void at cornerback.

Malcolm Willis has started 17 games for Penn State, the second-most starts of anyone on the team, at free safety. However, he isn’t guaranteed the starting job. Willis failed to force any turnovers last season and has not developed into the playmaker the Nittany Lions hoped he would be.

Ryan Keiser has only made one tackle for Penn State, but he could take over Malcolm Willis’ starting job. Keiser is thought to be a future leader for Penn State’s secondary, and the only question is when he will become that leader.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong is also a returning starter for Penn State, but likely will be a back-up safety this season. He defended four passes last season, but did not force any turnovers. He might only find his way onto the field in nickel packages.

Jordan Lucas and Da’Quan Davis battled for one of the two starting cornerback jobs in the spring with Lucas beating Davis. However, Davis was Stephen Morris’ back-up last season and defended three passes in limited playing time. Don’t be surprised if Davis leapfrogs Lucas on the depth chart by the season’s opening kickoff.

Trevor Williams is listed as the other starting cornerback despite being a wide receiver last season. Williams hasn’t played a defensive down since high school and is the least-experienced starter in Penn State's secondary.

While O’Brien tries to figure out what pieces do and don’t fit in the secondary, it certainly appears he is allotting a lot more time and energy to it than his predecessor.