UNIVERSITY PARK — Stephon Morris never had the benefit of a redshirt year to observe and learn from more experienced teammates preceeding him on the depth chart.
Rather, the Penn State senior cornerback has had ample opportunities to learn from his own plentiful playing experiences.
But Morris, who was thrust into the spotlight as a frequently used backup during his freshman campaign and then elevated to a near full-time starter in 2010, saw his playing time decrease dramatically last season.
Now, Morris is setting his sights on reclaiming one of the cornerback spots in a near-barren defensive backfield.
“I think I had to grow up a lot,” Morris said of his first three seasons. “I had a real good freshman year. Sophomore year was up and down. My junior year, a lot of people said I had a down year. I don’t really think it was a down year. It was just the fact that I got less reps. But the times I was in the game I had very positive plays. That was last year.”
After starting 10 games in 2010, Morris made just two starts last fall. Following the graduations of starters D’Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell and the hiring of Bill O’Brien along with new defensive backs coach John Butler, Morris had to reevaluate his outlook.
He had to be honest with himself as the Nittany Lions headed into spring ball with question marks instead of names penciled in for the secondary positions on the depth chart.
“I had to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘What is Stephon Morris to this team?’ And right now this team really needs me,” Morris said. “Especially the defensive back corps. I definitely have to take a bigger role, losing Derrick Thomas, losing Curtis Drake and being a senior. This year my main goal is to be a leader, be a stud for these guys.”
Thomas and Drake — the latter of which was moved to defense to fill the team’s needs for more corners — both left the squad due to personal reasons earlier this summer.
Among other returnees, sophomore Adrian Amos made two starts at corner last season filling in for an injured Lynn. However, the cornerback experience ends there for the Nittany Lions, who finished 17th in the country in passing defense last season.
Junior Mike Wallace and sophomores Jesse Della Valle, Patrick Flanagan and Devin Pryor are unproven commodities that combined to play limited snaps in just five games last season.
Morris, who described the losses of Drake and Thomas as a “huge blow”, is determined to lend his knowledge to those less experienced than him. The 5-foot-8, 188-pound corner from Greenbelt, Md., set aside more time in the spring to help mentor his younger teammates, a trend he vowed to continue as the season unfolds.
“I just text them, try to fit things in,” Morris said. “We watch film, do defensive back drills with them. Anything they need to ask they can ask me. I’ve definitely tried to be there for them every time.”
Although the Lions lack serious secondary depth, Morris isn’t their lone experienced defensive back.
While Amos also saw time at the safety position, junior Malcolm Willis returns to a platoon of safeties which will send two new starters onto the field after graduating both Nick Sukay and former captain Drew Astorino. Sukay started all but one game last season while Astorino was a three-year starter.
Willis, who made six starts as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and two last season, described himself as a heavy film-watcher and said he could ideally step in at either the corner or safety spot although he is more attuned to the latter.
“Even if we’re not preparing for an opponent I’m studying film on our defense just so I can really understand the schemes and concepts,” Willis said. “I’m definitely one of the guys that has to know all of the positions just from a role standpoint. I have to know what everybody is supposed to be doing. Just in case somebody is making a mistake, I know where the mistake is coming from. I’m a leader in the secondary from that standpoint.”
Willis is joined by junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong who backed up Astorino last season and recieved more defensive playing time than any of the other safties on the roster. Senior Jacob Fagnano has been primarily a special teams contributor throughout his career and Ryan Keiser, Tim Buckley Jeff Cully and Jonathan Duckett have not seen the field.
While Willis said he is naturally a safety as opposed to a cornerback, Amos expressed his fondness for both positions.
“Whatever makes us the most successful. We just want the best four people on the field,” Amos said. “If that means I have to play safety, have to play corner, it don’t really matter to me. I enjoy playing both, though. I like being on an island, playing man-to-man and I love being over top.”
Morris and Willis have witnesed Amos’ enthusiasm in addition to that of their other younger teammates first hand throughout the spring and summer.
They’ve spent a handful of Saturdays working on their own as a position group matching up with Penn State’s wide recievers during impromptu practice sessions without coaches.
Buckley, the youngest of the group, has had a nice offseason in addition to Della Valle who has been taking reps as both a safety and a corner, Willis said.
“Pat Flanagan, he’s coming on at corner. He’s trying to battle for some playing time this year. Also, a younger guy, Devin Pryor, he’s really been playing well,” Willis said. “When Stephon and I get together with the wide receivers on Saturdays just for kicks and giggles, we’ve seen a lot of improvement from those guys.”
Willis knew the weight would fall on his shoulders in addition to those of Morris when turnaround struck after last season. Their goal moving forward will be to finish grooming a consistent rotation of defensive backs.
So far, it’s not a task either player has shied away from.
“We embrace the challenge,” Morris said. “As a defensive backs corps we’ve got to roll with what we have. And as far as me, as a senior, as the leader of the group, whoever we have, I’m going to make sure they get ready, I’m going to make sure I get ready and the main thing now is go into training camp, be injury free and by the time Week 1 gets here make sure we have everyone ready to roll.”
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_