Penn State has used five players at the tailback spot in 2012. That’s for one position. Penn State has used six true defensive backs in the secondary in 2012. That’s for four positions.
The lack of depth in the secondary this season has affected the way Penn State plays defense. The Nittany Lions rarely stray from the traditional 4-3 style because they simply don’t have the personnel to help out in pass coverage.
While the secondary may be thin, it hasn’t hurt the team yet. Penn State’s defense has allowed the least amount of points in the Big Ten. Coach Bill O’Brien said his cornerbacks and safeties have only gotten better since the beginning of the season.
“I believe there’s been improvement in understanding of the schemes, understanding of zone coverage and pattern reads and doing a better job with their man coverage techniques,” O’Brien said.
Big plays for opposing receivers have been few this season against Penn State’s starters in the secondary. Offenses seem to have more success on long drives when they pile up first downs on mid-range completions. Penn State’s defense is fifth in the Big Ten, allowing an average 6.1 yards per pass play.
Furthermore, no defensive back has intercepted a pass yet this season. Junior safety Stephen Obeng-Agypong and freshman cornerback Da’Quan Davis are the only ones that have displayed a knack for turnovers, both with a fumble recovery to their names.
As Penn State breaks into the heart of its schedule, the secondary is going to be worked harder than ever by the Big Ten’s best receivers. Four of the Lions’ next six opponents rank in the top half of the conference in passing yards per game. And so far, former walk-on Jacob Fagnano and Davis have been Penn State’s only back-ups off the bench.
“Although we are thin, a lot of that has to do with just learning the defense and becoming comfortable,” Fagnano said. “Realizing what kind of routes, combinations other teams are going to try and play against, and defenses we like to run. Every week has been noticeably more comfortable for us.”
Protecting the secondary’s health has been a top priority for Butler and O’Brien. So far, Stephon Morris, Malcolm Willis, Adrian Amos and Obeng-Agyapong have done a good job at simply staying on the field and avoiding major injuries in the first half of the season. During the next six games, their ability to contribute will be just as important.
But considering how much defensive backs run and hit, Fagnano and Davis shouldn’t see any less playing time coming off the bench, regardless of the starters’ health. Willis has almost eclipsed his tackle numbers from last season, while Morris and Obeng-Agyapong have already done so — all with Fagnano and Davis seeing significant time.
Amos has already broken his 2011 tackles mark by double-digits. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who goes up against Amos in practice, said Amos is one of the best cornerbacks in the country.
“He’s a real physical guy,” Robinson said. “Especially through the spring and through the summer, I think that we made each other better. We definitely affect each other on the field, just make each other work every time we go up against each other. We’re both competitive, and we both get the best out of each other.”
Amos is primarily a corner, but he often drops back to the safety position on third downs. This type of versatility, Fagnano said, helps the secondary get by with so little depth.
“As far as being thin, we are down in numbers, but everybody has the ability to play several different positions, so that allows us to do a lot more,” Fagnano said.
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