They know the criticism is out there, primarily because their coach makes sure to tell them about it.
Penn State's secondary, with four new starters, is considered by many to be the biggest question mark on the team. Secondary coach John Butler has compiled some of the critical comments and made a point of relaying them to the defensive backs.
"It's definitely been a motivation factor," senior cornerback Stephon Morris said.
Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Stephon Morris (12) and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong celebrate a play from last season.
"Every day before practice, after practice, Coach Butler reminds us what everyone is saying," Morris added. "In the meeting room he gives us like little sayings about what the media has been saying, what Ohio has been saying about the secondary, how we're the weak link."
The defensive backs have to be getting tired of hearing the criticism, which is based on the unit's inexperience and depth concerns.
"Nothing that people say really burns me. ... It makes us want to play harder and makes us want to produce more," cornerback Adrian Amos said.
Amos hasn't been getting any criticism personally. It's been just the opposite, in fact, for a player considered by many to be one of the best on the team. Coach Bill O'Brien has said several times how impressed he is with the versatile sophomore, who can play all four spots in the secondary.
Amos said all the praise doesn't mean much to him because he knows he still has to produce on the field.
"If anything [the praise] will put more pressure to play well because now people are expecting me to do well," Amos said.
The other defensive backs don't have such lofty expectations from outsiders, so they'll have to earn their praise. This week would be a good time to start.
Ohio has a fast-paced, shotgun-based offense led by junior quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who's coming off a strong 2011 season. He threw for 3,302 yards, 28 TDs and 10 interceptions while completing 64.3 percent of his passes for the 10-4 Bobcats last year.
Tettleton gets rid of the ball in a hurry, which coupled with being in the shotgun could make it tough for Penn State to get much pressure on him. The secondary, therefore, will have to hold its own and make plays.
And finally, after years of playing soft zone coverage, the defensive backs are expected to play a lot of man-to-man and to put pressure on the receivers coming off the ball.
"I love playing man-to-man," Morris said. "Been doing that since I started playing cornerback when I was 7 years old. I'm just happy that my senior year to finally play a defense I feel comfortable and I feel happy and I feel wanted."
New defensive coordinator Ted Roof has implemented more aggressive schemes, which the players love.
"It allows us to be more open in space and really not think too much," junior safety Malcolm Willis said of the man-to-man coverage. "We really get to fly around to the ball and make plays."
Morris called Willis the quarterback of the defense because he knows all the calls, communicates well and keeps everyone relaxed.
Morris has extensive experience, starting 10 games in 2010 and two last year, while Willis played in every game last season. Amos played in every game a year ago as a true freshman and made one start.
The biggest wild card in the starting secondary is at the other safety spot, where senior walk-on Jake Fagnano and junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong are competing. Neither has much experience, and the fact that a senior walk-on has been the leading candidate to start may not be a good sign.
Fagnano missed significant time during training camp with a hamstring injury, opening the door for Obeng-Agyapong to enter the mix.
It gets thin after that, with the top replacement possibilities being true freshmen Da'Quan Davis and Jordan Lucas. Both have looked good in camp, O'Brien said, but they're still unproven.
If the starters can all stay healthy, the secondary has a chance to progress and be solid by season's end. But if there are any injuries at all, things go sour in a hurry.
"We definitely feel like we're not the weak link," Morris said. "But we just want everybody to relax, and we're just ready to go out there and show everybody how hard we've been working."
Whether they're doing well or struggling, Butler has been there to keep the defensive backs motivated.
"He's probably the most enthusiastic coach that we have," Willis said. "He's always harping on the bad things that we're doing, he's always harping on the good things that we're doing. There's not a dull moment in the meeting room or on the field. He's always in our face. He just wants us to be the best player we can be."
If they can become the type of players Butler is hoping for, then Penn State's secondary will outperform all expectations and prove the critics wrong.
That process begins Saturday.
"We just get chill bumps," Morris said about finally getting to play a game.