UNIVERSITY PARK - Devon Still clogged up Penn State's defensive line and was a headache for opposing offenses. He was named the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American.
But Still, who had 8.5 sacks and 27 tackles for loss over his final two seasons, is gone, getting drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals, leaving a big hole to fill for defensive line coach Larry Johnson and new defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
"Every year, there's a guy you lose," Johnson said. "We've got some guys that have to step up. We're going to miss [Still], no question about it because he brings something to the table, but we have some guys who will have opportunities to do things Still did also."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill talks with reporters at media day recently.
"That's a huge loss," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said, "but the way Coach Johnson coaches and the way he gets players in here, I don't see much of a dropoff. Coach Johnson always finds a way to keep the train moving."
Hill, a senior, would be the most likely candidate to be that Still-like player who could anchor the line. An honorable mention Big Ten pick last season, Hill he led the line in tackles with 59, including eight for loss, and made 3.5 sacks. He led the team in fumble recoveries with three.
"I want to have the best season that I've had since I've been here," Hill said. "This is my last year. I don't want to go off with a bad year. But that's not going to be able to happen without my defensive line and the rest of my defense. I'm only as good as they are."
"I expect a great season if he stays healthy, knock on wood," Johnson said. "He's a great worker, great leader, great technician. The thing about Jordan is that he really wants to be good. He'll work every day like his hair is on fire."
"Jordan is a great player, and he had a great season last year," defensive end Sean Stanley said. "I would expect him to build on that with the help of me, DaQuan [Jones] and Pete [Massaro], we'll acquire attention with double teams from teams."
Hill could have a big season and come up with some big defensive statistics, but he turned the focus on media day away from him toward his linemates.
"I really don't focus on personal goals at all," Hill said, "because when you get caught up in your personal stuff, that takes away from that unique bond a defensive lineman has."
At 6-foot-1, 288 pounds, Hill is about 10 pounds lighter than he was at during spring practice. He says he's taken advantage of the new weightlifting program, headed by Craig Fitzgerald.
"I've definitely gotten a lot stronger," Hill said. "I'm down in weight, but muscle-wise I've gained three or four pounds of muscle."
Hill looks a little small compared to the other expected starting tackle, junior DaQuan Jones, a 6-3, 324-pounder who played behind Still last season.
The defensive ends are both under 260 pounds in 6-1, 243-pound senior Sean Stanley and 6-4, 256-pound redshirt senior Pete Massaro.
"That doesn't concern me at all," Hill said of the size of the ends, "because one thing that they have is heart. They're not going to let you manhandle them. I have high expectations for them."
Stanley made an impact in his six starts last season, forcing a team-high three fumbles and making 4.5 sacks. Massaro made 11 starts in 2010, but he had to sit out last season with an ACL injury. He also suffered a torn ACL in 2009.
"In the past, we've always had great defensive lines," Stanley said. "This year, we have a little bit more athleticism to bring to the table. I think we can have a really good season rushing the passer."
Deion Barnes, a 6-4, 246-pound redshirt freshman who had 13 sacks as a senior at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, could have a big season coming off the bench as a pass rusher.
First-year coach Bill O'Brien is counting on the line to shine.
"I feel really good about our defensive line. I think we're deep there," O'Brien said. "Deion Barnes is a really good young player. We can play a lot of guys up front. That's probably the strength of our football team."
The line and linebackers will have to step up big to make up for the lack of experience in the secondary and all of the questions on offense. It's been a trying offseason for the Nittany Lions, who have been hit with crippling sanctions, a bowl ban and transfers, but the expectations are still pretty high among the players.
"I think we have a chance to win every game that we play," Hill said. "That goes for every year. We're just focused on September 1, playing Ohio. We can only take it one game at a time."