UNIVERSITY PARK - None of Penn State's cornerbacks or safeties have bug eyes, go around straightening their ties or played a supporting role in the movie "Caddyshack,'' but you couldn't blame them if they identified closely to Rodney Dangerfield.
They just can't seem to get much respect.
While much hype around this year's Nittany Lion defense surrounds the potential of its front seven, a veteran secondary that has already proven itself to be very competent has gotten largely overlooked.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Chaz Powell is one of the returning players in the Penn State secondary.
Two-time honorable mention all-Big Ten cornerback D'Anton Lynn claims not to be bothered by the lack of attention, but his words and tone smack of someone with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
"I don't care if I'm overlooked, underlooked, it doesn't matter to me. I'm going to go out there and play regardless, and I think we all approach it the same way,'' Lynn said. "We're still going to go out there and we're going to go out and do what we have to do to get our team to the Big Ten championship game, no matter what the media or the fans think about us.''
Last year, Penn State ranked 16th nationally and second in the conference in passing yards allowed, 181.2. It accomplished that in spite of the defensive line's inability to generate a consistent pass rush and linebacking play that was below typical Nittany Lion standards.
All four starters return from 2010: Lynn at one corner, junior Stephon Morris at the other and safeties Drew Astorino and Malcolm Willis. Morris is currently trying to displace athletic senior Chaz Powell, who moved back over from offense and took the early lead to start. Senior Nick Sukay, meanwhile, will probably reclaim the starting spot he relinquished to Willis a little less than halfway into last season when he tore a pectoral muscle against Illinois.
Safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and former walk-on Jake Fagnano also lettered last year. Despite playing in the first four games and picking off a pass, cornerback Derrick Thomas didn't letter last year after falling into Lion coach Joe Paterno's doghouse, but the redshirt sophomore was considered a big-time talent coming out of high school - he's back in the picture to play.
"I think we look really good. Obviously, we've got a lot of room to improve, and we need to keep doing that on a daily basis,'' Astorino, a senior like Lynn and Sukay, said. "But we have five, six, seven, eight guys who are ready to play now, which is really good for practice and really good for the games. We're all pushing each other. So we're really excited.''
The Lion quarterbacks will vouch for how the secondary looked early in camp.
"They've been tough to throw on,'' McGloin said. "They've made us much better, but they are very tough to throw on.''
That said, it wasn't all a bed of roses in the Penn State secondary in 2010. The Nittany Lions only picked off 10 passes - Lynn and Sukay led the way with three apiece, Sukay picking his off in just six games.
"We need to make more plays. We've gotten better at it, but we need to create more turnovers for our offense,'' Lynn said.
And, while the yardage figures were very good, opposing passers connected on 61 percent of their pass attempts vs. the Lions.
Having Powell and Sukay back could turn out to be huge additions. While Powell is one of the fastest Nittany Lions, it's been hard for the coaches to find a spot for him. He started as a safety, moved to receiver for two years, then to corner, back to receiver and back to corner all last season.
He's hoping to have found a home.
"It feels good,'' Powell said. "I'll do whatever it takes to make this team better, if it's me playing linebacker, just as in the case of playing safety or playing running back.''
A subject of criticism early in his career, Sukay seemed to be blossoming before getting hurt last season. In addition to his three interceptions, he caused a fumble and had 29 tackles.
"I'm full go,'' Sukay said of his health. "[My goals are] to help the team as much as I can and to improve as much as I can individually. I want to pick up where I left off last year.''
Early reports are that the secondary's depth has looked very good. Willis played well in Sukay's absence, and Thomas has the potential to be a big playmaker the Lions lacked last year. Meanwhile, State College redshirt freshman Alex Kenney and true freshman Adrian Amos have been pushing for time at corner, as well; Amos has been compared to a young Lynn.'
"He came out just like he belonged. He's been coming along really well. We've all been really impressed with him,'' Lynn said of Amos. "The younger guys are coming along and getting better, guys like Derrick Thomas, Alex Kenney, Mike Wallace. Jesse Della Valle has been making a lot of plays in camp as well.''
Astorino is trying not to get caught up in how good the secondary is, but he's definitely focused on how it figures into the bigger defensive scheme.
"We're looking to be better as a whole entire unit. Not just secondary. Not just linebackers. Not just defensive line,'' Astorino said. "I think maybe that was one of our problems last year. We played almost as separate groups. I think we're doing a really good job of meshing everything together this year.''