UNIVERSITY PARK — Sometimes Adrian Amos will line up on the left side of the Penn State defense, opposite a wide receiver. Other times, hes been deeper, beside Malcolm Willis at one of the two safety positions.
The Penn State sophomore doesnt mind all the repetitions or all the playbook reading assignments. He actually prefers a heavy workload.
And its been heavier than usual over the past few weeks.
Since Penn State started preseason camp, its secondary, which lost all four starters from last season and saw three players leave the program for various reasons before camp opened, has been of the plug-and-play variety. Whoevers been healthy has gotten the repetitions on that particular day.
Finally, with the season opener just days away, the Nittany Lions' defensive backfield seems to be settled. Now the Penn State defensive backs just want to prove the doubters wrong.
Theyll get a chance against an Ohio attack led by quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who set 12 school passing records last season.
We really havent showed them anything yet, senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. I just think they should relax. Were going to be all right.
That didnt look to be the case through the middle to latter portions of Penn States camp.
To compound the units depth issues following cornerback Curtis Drakes dismissal, Derrick Thomas decision to leave the program and talented walk-on Tim Buckleys transfer, all of Penn States projected starters have been slowed at some point during the offseason by health issues.
Amos dealt with a groin injury that limited him in the spring sessions while Morris and senior Willis suffered ankle injuries that limited their reps at times. Willis and fellow safety Jacob Fagnano have also battled hamstring injuries recently.
The setbacks have made for much personnel shuffling by the coaching staff.
It definitely takes a pounding on you ... mentally with meetings all day, waking up at 6:45 in the morning, the days usually not ending until around 10 oclock at night, Morris said. But the injuries weve had during camp ... its definitely been a challenge because a lot of people had to get a lot of reps. Usually, myself would go with the ones and twos, Amos had to go ones, twos and threes at times. Its definitely been taking a toll on us physically.
As for the mental aspect, Penn State players have been tasked with learning new defensive terminology under coordinator Ted Roof. While the "Hero" position has been removed from the Penn State lexicon, both cornerback spots have more defined, distinctive responsibilities and the Nittany Lions plan to play much more man-to-man defense this season under Roof.
Morris will likely line up as Penn States field cornerback, a defender tasked with guarding the wide side of the gridiron. Amos will be the teams primary boundary cornerback, a player responsible for the short side and deeper routes without regular safety help over the top.
Under former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, the Nittany Lions secondary was of the bend-but-dont-break variety, often providing opposing receivers with more space and mixing in multiple zone coverage looks to thwart passing attacks. It was this in type of defense that Morris felt underused.
The senior said he thought about transferring out of Penn State following last season when he started just two games. OBriens hiring changed his outlook, however, and Morris was given a clean slate.
I wouldnt say I had to shake off the rust. We didnt really play man-to-man, Morris said of the change of defensive approach. It was just the fact that I had to work on my technical things again, as far as like press coverage, off-man and things like that. But I love playing man-to-man. Ive been doing that since I started playing cornerback when I was seven years old. Im just happy that my senior year I can finally play a defense that I feel comfortable in and I feel happy in and I feel wanted.
It's definitely more exciting, it allows us to be more open in space and really not think too much, Willis added. We really get to fly around to the ball and make plays. It's rather exciting.
Playing more man-to-man and press coverage could allow a player like Amos to use his physical gifts to punish would-be pass-catchers.
Last season, the sophomore showed glimpses that he can be a fierce hitter in the open field at safety. Hes not worried that the move to corner will provide him with fewer chances to level a big, momentum-boosting hit. Press coverage, after all, relies on a defensive backs ability to outmuscle a wide-out for a split second to throw off the offensive players route as the ball is snapped.
Amos seemingly endless practice snaps have also helped him get more in-tune with how he can assist his safeties with pre-snap reads and communication.
It does help me playing multiple positions. If Im at corner, I know what the safety does, where hes at in coverage and where my help is and vice versa, Amos said. You can be a big hitter anywhere you play. I dont really have to adjust in order to play physical. I dont have to change my style of play.
For the most part, however, Amos will listen for the defensive signals.
Willis, described by Morris as the quarterback of the Penn State defense, will handle most play calls when the Lions operate without a defensive huddle on Saturday.
Ever since Malcolm came back from his ankle injury, you can just feel the defense is a lot more comfortable with him back there, Morris said. He knows everything, every call, every signal. The linebackers look back to him to see the signal. He makes sure myself and whoever the other corner is knows the signal as well. Hes just a communication junkie. He just keeps everybody relaxed and tuned in.
Keeping his teammates informed will go a long way in determining Penn States defensive success against Ohio, a team Morris compared to Houston a squad that gashed the Penn State secondary for 532 passing yards in the TicketCity Bowl. Like the Cougars, the Bobcats utilize a lot of no-huddle, uptempo offense to keep defenses in a perpetual backpedal.
Tettleton, the triggerman for the Bobcats offense, will be tossing to a mostly new cast of receivers. Donte Foster returns as Tettletons most experienced target after he caught five of Tettletons 28 touchdown passes last season.
Despite the Bobcats lack of an established corps of receivers, Tettleton is also a multi-dimensional quarterback. Last season, the red-shirt junior ran for 658 yards and 10 scores when he couldnt make a play with his arm.
Their quarterback makes everything go. We have to be ready for that uptempo pace, we have to be ready to respond to it, Willis said. I have been studying him as long as I can, as far as film study goes, I have been in there multiple times per day, to learn his tendencies and see what he can do on any given down. He has the ability to make plays when things breakdown. It's going to be a test for our defense.
Willis, Morris, Amos and Fagnano wont be alone on Saturday. Freshmen corners DaQuan Davis and Jake Kiley along with freshman safety Jordan Lucas have impressed their elder teammates and could see ample field time.
I will let our play speak for itself, Willis said.
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_