Tom Bradley enters his 33rd season on the Penn State football staff and his 12th as defensive coordinator.
From 2004-10, Penn State ranked No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense (16.4 ppg) and fifth in rushing (107.1 ypg) and total defense (298.7 ypg). But the Lions slipped to 50th in scoring defense last year, yielding 23.9 points per game, in part because of injuries and in part because of performance.
Penn State finished 7-5, and Bradley almost wasn't around to see the unit make a comeback. He was a finalist for the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh, a position he lost out to Todd Graham of Tulsa.
Reached Friday, a day before the Lions opened spring drills, Bradley was reluctant to say much about his flirtation with Pitt and more eager to look ahead toward another year alongside Joe Paterno on the PSU sidelines.
Mirror: Was it difficult to get over the very public courtship of the Pitt job?
Bradley: Not at all. I work at a great place with great people. I still have a great situation.
Mirror: Who helped you through that disappointment?
Bradley: I don't know if it was a disappointment. You went out and tried to get a head job at a great place, and you get back to business.
Mirror: Were you a serious candidate at Connecticut?
Bradley: No. I never interviewed. I was contacted, but I did not go up for an interview.
Mirror: You've said in the past that being a head coach won't define you. Do you feel like that window is closing?
Bradley: I don't think so. I think there will always be opportunities, and if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to be disappointed because I'm at a great place, and I've had great experiences here.
Mirror: Were people at Penn State supportive of your interest in a head-coaching job?
Bradley: I don't think anybody wants to hold you back from what your dreams are.
Mirror: Switching gears, what are the biggest challenges facing this year's defense?
Bradley: We certainly have to get better, first and foremost fundamentally. We violated a lot of the principles last year, some things Coach Paterno has preached. No. 1, we didn't tackle well, and we've been known as a good-tackling defense. We didn't do a good job putting up fences, and we allowed too many big plays. We had problems with vertical entries. These are all things that can be corrected. We've got to get back to being a tough, hard-nosed defense. I see this spring as a chance for us to get better. The NCAA limits the number of days you can have full contact, but I can guarantee the days we're allowed to hit, we're going to get back to being a physical defense.
Mirror: Where will the defensive leadership come from?
Bradley: I think that's what we're trying to solve. I don't know that we got that done last year. We've gone through winter workouts. We're going to put them in situations where someone has got to step to the front. I really think we'll have an opportunity to have a pretty good defense this year.
Mirror: Did you feel the defense benefited from the Outback Bowl practices?
Bradley: I thought we had good preparations. We lost the game so obviously not good enough, but I thought we made some strides. Because of injuries, we played a lot of people and have developed a lot of depth. I thought we did some things better and grew up a bit in the bowl preparation practices, but you give up those amount of points in a game (35) ... that can't happen.
Mirror: Why didn't you create more turnovers last year?
Bradley: We didn't have a lot of sacks (13, ranked 101 out of 120 nationally). We weren't aggressive enough. We were tentative at times and with experience, that should help us get better.
Mirror: Were the injuries to Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore too much to overcome?
Bradley: Injuries are part of the game. You have to be prepared. If you're a good football team, you'll overcome them. I've always seen them as an opportunity for somebody to step forward. Pete Massaro stepped in, and I think people saw the player he can become.
Mirror: Do you expect Brandon Ware to become a factor, and do you need a space-eater in the middle?
Bradley: Yes, we're going to need Brandon to step up. This is his time. It's now or never for him. We're getting depth inside with DaQuan Jones and Jordan Hill - he's a good football player - and Devon Still.
Mirror: Should the linebacking corps be a strength?
Bradley: Hopefully it will be. We have great quickness there. We've got to get tougher and be more aggressive. Athletically, there are some guys with a chance. Mauti and Stupar have played. Hodges got up around the ball.
Mirror: What did you see in Khairi Fortt and Glenn Carson, true freshmen last year, and what kind of role might they play?
Bradley: Two young guys with good athleticism. It's how they develop from year to year. Fortt had some burners and neck problems, but he's a guy that can really run. He's got all the physical tools. Now comes the intangibles - work ethic, film study. But he's gifted.
Mirror: Will Drew Astorino practice this spring?
Bradley: He will.
Mirror: Sometimes Joe has limited the fifth-year guys in the spring.
Bradley: Not this spring.
Mirror: What is Derrick Thomas' status?
Bradley: He's back on the team.
Mirror: Have any position changes taken place on defense?
Bradley: We're always debating, and we throw a bunch of things around. We've had a chance to look at these guys in winter workouts. I'd tell you, but it might not stick.
Mirror: Who are some of the younger players who may challenge for starting positions?
Bradley: (Linebacker) Mike Hull is a guy with a chance to be a good player. (Defensive end) Brad Barrs. Some young guys will come forward, hopefully.
Mirror: Any predictions for the Blue-White Game?
Bradley: Whatever team I'm coaching ... go with the other team.