UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State's secondary is fresh from a four-touchdown, 413-yard torching at the hands of Southern Cal - and that was with four multi-year starters in the Nittany Lions' defensive backfield.
The 2009 rebuilt unit will be anchored by a pair of players, safety Drew Astorino and cornerback A.J. Wallace, who have made a combined three career starts, once Wallace fully emerges from Joe Paterno's doghouse for academic lapses.
It would therefore lend itself to reason that the Lions' front seven, rich with experience and depth, could make life easier for the secondary by, say, leading the nation in sacks.
Joe Paterno seconded that in front of 200-plus Media Day witnesses Thursday.
"The more pressure we can put up front, the more sophisticated we can be in coverage," he said, ticking off the options of linebackers dropping off and defensive backs matching up in zones and bracketing go-to receivers (did someone say Arrelious Benn?)
On the other hand, JoePa said, "you hate to be too cute."
Penn State has traditionally embraced a bend-but-don't-break, keep-them-in-front-of-you philosophy that has generally served it well. As the secondary coach then, Tom Bradley was on the sidelines in Tempe, Ariz., in 1987 when the Lions repeatedly confused Miami's Vinny Testaverde and clinched No. 1 with five interceptions, often by dropping eight into coverage.
"We gave up 500 yards [actually 445] that night," Bradley said Thursday, "and won [14-10]."
When the greatest win in your history came by not blitzing, it's sometimes tough to change. Bradley, like all coaches, debated the Lions' failures in the offseason. Last year, there were two - the second half at Iowa, when the defense blew a two-score lead and with it a chance to play for No. 1, and the total collapse against the Trojans.
"You have to pick your poison," he said. "Sometimes three-man rushes work because the quarterback is running timing routes and doesn't see the linebackers. It depends on the game and the game plan."
Which, he said, is too early to determine. Having only practiced in pads once before Thursday, Bradley said the staff really hasn't had much chance to evaluate the DBs.
The cynic would suggest that's all the more reason to send Navorro Bowman on every second- or third-and-long, but Bradley said it's not that simple.
"We did go after them [with blitzes] last year," he said. "We just didn't get there. When they max protect, there's no sense in going because you're not going to get home."
Still, returning linebacker Sean Lee senses, "I think we're going to blitz and come off the edge," he said.
Wallace is confident the line and linebackers will do everything possible to acclimate a secondary that also will benefit from the three-game home exhibition season of Akron, Syracuse and Temple.
"I think we have the best D-line in the country, and the rush will definitely speed up the quarterback and force him into some ill-advised throws," Wallace said.
That will be especially true prior to the Big Ten season.
Once Iowa arrives, though, whether the linebackers more often fall back into coverage or attack - and thus not allow receivers enough time to get open against a unit that you know will be backpedaling into a frustrating cushion - will decide if the '09 defensive theme is passive or aggressive.
Here's hoping the choice is B.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.