UNIVERSITY PARK - Adrian Amos entered the 2013 football season seemingly on the verge of becoming something special.
He'll be the first one to tell you it didn't really turn out the way he had hoped.
"In my eyes, last year, I didn't feel I played my best. I feel like my sophomore year was better than my last year," Amos said at Penn State football media day earlier this month at Beaver Stadium.
"It humbles you, and it makes you a little more hungry when you see yourself disappointed," the 6-foot-2, 209-pound defensive back added. "Every day, I'm just working to be better. Working on every little thing I can do to be better. I learned a lot over the last year, over the last two years, that's going to help me in the future."
An Amos with something to prove definitely is a scary proposition for Penn State opponents. It also bodes well for a Nittany Lion secondary trying to rebound after finishing in the bottom of the half of the Big Ten statistically last year but has the talent to be much better and the experience and depth to be one of the strongpoints of the Penn State football team in 2014.
The season kicks off a week from today in Ireland when the Lions take on UCF in the Croke Classic.
"We want to be the best we can be, for the fans and just to remember for a lifetime what this game was like," said senior safety Ryan Keiser, one of three returning starters and 10 returning lettermen in the Lions' defensive backfield. "We want to be the best in the Big Ten and the best in the country, secondary-wise, defense-wise, and, of course, team-wise."
It might seem like a lot of talk considering how things went last year, when Penn State ranked eighth in the conference in pass defense and was fifth in the Big Ten in pass defense efficiency, but there's reason to be very optimistic the secondary will be much improved in 2014. Amos is a rare talent who can has the quickness and strength to play corner and the size and range to play safety - he figures to be mostly the latter this fall - and still was Big Ten honorable mention in 2013 despite his considering it a down year when he wasn't able to take a considerable step forward from a breakout sophomore campaign in 2013.
Cornerback Jordan Lucas also was honorable mention all-conference last fall after snaring three interceptions, which tied him with Keiser for team high. Keiser and fellow one-time walk-on Jesse Della Valle return for their graduate years and bring a lot of experience with them, while juniors Da'Quan Davis and Trevor Williams will look to continue to grow as those former high school teammates - they went to Calvert Hall in Baltimore with Amos - battle it out for the starting corner slot opposite Lucas.
"Last year I wasn't as comfortable as I thought I would be playing the position. This offseason, I got a lot more comfortable, being coached up by Coach Smith and Coach Shoop," said Williams, a converted wide receiver. "I'm just taking it day-by-day, taking my time, trying to get used to the position."
Lucas is coming off a breakout sophomore season in which he made 65 tackles. USA Today named him first-team all-Big Ten this preseason.
"Personally, I don't expect anything. I just hope that all my hard work in the summer and the spring is going to show itself on the field," Lucas said. "Last year I learned that things will happen. You can't hang your head. You have to just roll with the punches. Each week you get better. Each week, you prepare to get better."
Few positions on this year's Lion team can relate to the whirlwind that had been the last two-plus years of Penn State football like the secondary can. Amos, Keiser and Della Valle all came in when Joe Paterno was coach. Lucas, Davis and Williams signed in the wake of the coaching change, and all six of those players were part of the program when the harsh NCAA sanctions were levied against the program in the late summer of 2012.
"It's crazy that this is the last camp, the last run at it," said Keiser, one of nine post-graduates finishing out their playing eligibility this fall.
All that veteran savvy figures to be augmented this fall by some talented new faces. Redshirt sophomore safety Malik Golden has earned some very good reviews in camp, as have true freshman corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell. Haley, an Atlanta native who committed to James Franklin's staff when they were at Vanderbilt and switched over when they came to Penn State, posted some of the fastest times on the team in preseason.
"We've got young guys that are fast. We've got some big, fast strong young guys that can come in and help out," Amos said. "We just have to make sure we're all on the same page so we can go out and have some fun."
All that depth along with the experience will give the coaches plenty of options. Amos can move around the field, and he might be one of the players in line to play the Star position, a kind of strong safety-linebacker hybrid that will get an extra defensive back onto the field.
"It gives us a lot of interchangeable parts," Keiser said. "We can play five DBs. We can put the best guys on the field and, communication-wise, (still) be on the same page, having veterans back there. Being on the same page is huge in football."
If things come together for the secondary, this defense could wind up being very good. The strength in the defensive backfield goes hand-in-hand with another potential area of strength on this year's Lions, the defensive line.
"It helps with trust," Lucas said. "If the linemen trust us to cover the receivers, we trust them to go get the quarterback. They go get the quarterback, the quarterback throws a ball he doesn't want to throw, we get a present. That's one thing (experience) does for us."
That fits nicely into defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's desire for an aggressive defense.
"Coach Shoop is a great coach," Keiser said. "We're really going to be ball conscious and try to create turnovers and fly to the ball."
"We want to force a few more turnovers," Lucas said. "We want to be the offense."
Some outside the program felt the moving around Amos went through last year might have hindered his development. He said that wasn't the case.
"I expect to move around more. If I like the defense, if I'm comfortable in the defense, it doesn't matter where I'm playing," "I enjoy this defense. Just being aggressive."
Although Amos is one of the most experienced players on the roster, he doesn't view himself as one of the team's vocal leaders. Instead, he wants to let his play do the talking more this year than it did in
"I'm not too much of a talkative guy. I'm not the rah-rah, go around and scream at everybody (guy). But, if somebody needs help, I've been around. I know my playbook. I'm there to help," Amos said. "I feel my job is to make plays."