John Butler didn’t walk into the ideal scenario personnel-wise as Penn State’s secondary coach.
In his first season handling the Nittany Lions’ defensive backs, Butler said he has used only a handful of scholarship players in the secondary. Penn State has shied away from using a nickel package this season, and Butler noted the main reason the team doesn’t put five defensive backs on the field much is due to a lack of depth.
“We’ll play nickel when we have nickel personnel,” Butler said. “Until we have nickel personnel, we have to continue to build our package around what we’re doing. What we’re not going to do is take a player off the field who is better than maybe a secondary player. …I know that a lot of readers out there are wondering why we don’t play nickel. And I guess I’m wondering why I only have six DBs when I took the job here.”
Though some players are injured and others might redshirt this season, Penn State does have a combined 15 cornerbacks and safeties on its roster. However, Butler said he thinks the team ideally needs 11-12 scholarship secondary players to use a nickel or dime package often. He also said recruiting defensive backs would be a priority for the Lions.
The six players Butler primarily uses in the secondary are cornerbacks Stephon Morris, Da’Quan Davis, safeties Malcolm Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Jacob Fagnano, along with Adrian Amos, who can line up anywhere in the defensive backfield.
While it’s faced some run-heavy offenses lately, the Lions’ pass defense has improved since its first two contests of the season, and subsequently, the team has won four games in a row.
In Penn State’s first two games, the team allowed 587 total passing yards and opposing quarterbacks had a completion percentage of 70.1 percent. In the last four games, the Lions have given up 687 total passing yards and quarterbacks have completed 57.6 percent of passes against the team’s defense.
Butler said he thinks the defensive backs started to understand their roles more as the season progressed.
“I think after the first week and even into the second week, I think we started to identify who we are, what our kids can do well and what they’re used to doing here,” Butler said. “And we started to migrate to that with the sprinkling in of other stuff.”
Since it’s Penn State’s bye week, Butler and the rest of the coaching staff have been doing a lot of self-scouting. Butler — a Philadelphia native, who attended La Salle College High School with Penn State strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald — said he’s seen consistent play of his safeties and the corners have been the strength of the secondary.
The biggest area of improvement that Butler said his unit has made since the season began is coming up with stops on third down. In Penn State’s first two games, Ohio and Virginia combined to convert 22 of 36 third-down attempts (61.1 percent). But in the previous four weeks, the Lions have held opponents to 15-of-55 on third down (27.3 percent).
“Against Ohio U, obviously not very good on third down. You look at us against UVA, not very good on third down,” Butler said. “In the last four weeks, we’ve been much better on third down and that’s because we’ve simplified things a little bit. We’ve really focused on that situation, making sure we understand how critical it is to get off the field on third down.”
The Lions’ secondary has yet to come away with an interception this season, but the unit’s four starters (Morris, Willis, Amos and Obeng-Agyapong) all have at least 20 tackles this season. And teammates have noted improvement from the secondary since week one.
“The biggest difference is the confidence,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “They’re getting great confidence, they’re coming up and making plays. It seems to be each week, a new guy in the secondary is making big plays.”