Lions getting ‘star’ on defense

UNIVERSITY PARK – There are some fancy ways to describe Penn State’s new defensive scheme, such as 4-2-5 or explaining exactly what the much-ballyhooed “star” position will entail.

There’s also a simple description.

“It’s just nickel,” safety Adrian Amos said. “That’s it.”

The goal is to get the best 11 players on the field at the same time, and since the Nittany Lions are thin at linebacker, one of those 11 could be a defensive back a good bit of the time. It’s a hybrid safety/outside linebacker mix called the star position, and PSU fans will have to get used to hearing it a lot this season.

“I just think that’s the direction the game’s heading, if you’ve got two box backers and a field backer who’s got kind of a hybrid outside linebacker, strong safety skill set,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.

OK, but is Amos right in saying that, at its core, it’s a traditional nickel package?

“Yep,” Shoop said.

A few years back, PSU had such little depth on the defensive line that linebackers such as Tim Shaw and Jerome Hayes were moved up to the front four to play a stand-up defensive end spot. Now the depth issues – almost inconceivably – are at the linebacker spots, and with an abundance of athletic defensive backs, some of them will have to fill more of a traditional linebacker role.

The Lions faced a similar situation last year when Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had to come up and play linebacker. The only difference is that now the players who will do so have the fancy name of being the star.

“I play defense, so it doesn’t matter what position I play,” said Amos, one of the candidates to fill the star spot.

Shoop had high praise for Amos, saying he “has as good a skill set as anybody I’ve ever been around.”

“It makes me feel good,” Amos, who played cornerback last year, said after hearing those comments. But I’ve got to prove it and make plays on the field. Skill set doesn’t mean nothing if I’m not making plays.”

Other possibilities for the star include cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Malik Golden, as well as freshmen Koa Farmer and Grant Haley. The star player could change from week to week, depending on the opponents’ strengths.

The base defensive formation will include four down linemen, although Shoop said there are some packages where there are only three. Whether there are two or three linebackers will depend on if outside guys such as Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman emerge as better players than some of the defensive backs competing for the star spot.

“We do a really good job as a staff of identifying good players and putting them in a position to be successful,” Shoop said. “The best players are going to play.”

As for his philosophy in general, Shoop noted the defense “will be built on relentless pursuit of the football and never-ending pressure.”

Offensive approach

The new coaching staff hasn’t provided many specifics with regards to schemes or strategies, and while that largely remained true Monday, there were more hints given.

Shoop’s defensive comments were one, and on offense, coach James Franklin confirmed what most already figured when it comes to doing whatever it takes to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Franklin was asked if he has contingency plans in case the suspect offensive line can’t keep Hackenberg protected, and his answer revealed a lot about the playcalling.

“We are going to have to call the game to help with those things,” Franklin said. “That’s moving the pocket, that’s getting the ball out of his hand as quickly as we possibly can, and there’s a variety of ways of doing that. That’s committing to the running game.?”I think when you have a quarterback like Christian, you say, well, let’s just throw the ball. But you have to be careful because, over time, you become predictable and you have to be careful. We are going to have to commit to the running game and sticking with the running game, no matter what.”

Filling the void

Franklin also acknowledged how the offense will try to fill the void left by Allen Robinson, who caught a school-record 97 passes last year.

“A lot of the makeup for the production that we lost will come from the tight end position,” the coach said. “I believe that that’s where we have the most veteran players. That’s where we have the most experience and depth.”

The Lions are loaded at tight end, led by Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

News and notes

Some other tidbits that stood out from media day:

n Only five players ran a 40-yard dash in less than 4.50 seconds in the spring, but now that the freshmen are on board, that number is up to 11.

n It’s no surprise, given how much he talks about personal relationships and the team being a family, that Franklin prefers the following concept: “We spent a lot of time focused on chemistry and morale. I think chemistry and morale are as important, if not more important, than the Xs and Os and the toughness.”

n One difference with this training camp compared to years past is that there are still two weeks of summer school remaining, instead of one, which makes it more challenging for the players’ schedules.

n Franklin likes to have this third-string tailback return kickoffs to keep them involved in the game, so Akeel Lynch could get opportunities there.

n Special teams coach Charles Huff said there are several players competing for the punting job and that the competition is close and will continue throughout the season. By having someone there to push the frontrunner every single day, Huff said it will create an environment where the starter has to remain on top of his game.

n Franklin nearly ran into Harrisburg Patriot-News columnist David Jones with a golf cart on his way to the media room, but he slammed on the breaks just in time. Jones, who has a reputation as one of the more critical PSU beat writers, joked to the coach, “There will be people who are sorry you stopped.”