The reflection period after victories doesn’t last long for football coaches, and Penn State’s Bill O’Brien and his offensive assistants observed some worrisome images earlier this week.
Peeking at Illinois film for the first time, the group analyzed the maneuvers of four large, powerful players.
The quartet wore orange and blue. In O’Brien’s mind, the Illinois defensive line plays like a group that dresses in blue and white. His assistants agreed.
“They reminded us of what we play against every day in practice,” O’Brien said.
Penn State and Illinois can disagree over recruiting tactics, but there’s one consensus-building topic surrounding today’s Big Ten opener in Champaign, Ill. Both teams have cultivated serious defensive line talent.
“I think as units we both have a lot speed, explosiveness, quickness and aggressiveness,” Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “It’s going to be a battle of two good fronts.”
The fronts dominated last year’s game as snow limited the volume of outside play. Penn State prevailed 10-7. Neither set of lane-cloggers budged, with the teams combining for less than 500 yards of total offense.
Some of last year’s stalwarts now play in the NFL.
The Houston Texas selected Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus with the 26th overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft. The Cincinnati Bengals used a second-round pick on Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still.
High draft picks are becoming common for both programs.
The Miami Dolphins selected former Penn State defensive tackle Jared Odrick in the 2010 first round.
A year earlier, the Buffalo Bills drafted defensive end Aaron Maybin in the first round.
Maybin and Odrick followed 2006 first-rounder Tamba Hali. Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes were selected 12th and 14th overall, respectively, in 2003.
Illinois has produced a first-rounder the past two years. The run started with the San Diego Chargers taking Corey Liuget 18th overall in 2010.
Players at both schools use their predecessors as motivation.
“It’s real big,” Spence said. “Playing with Corey and Whitney taught me how to prepare well and the importance of having a great week of practice and practicing like a pro. Being around those guys let’s you know how to get it done.”
Pictures of defensive line successes adorn Lasch Building walls. But getting on the field at Penn State isn’t easy.
Consider the program’s current defensive end situation.
Sean Stanley (back) and Pete Massaro (shoulder) must watch younger players flourish as they recuperate from injuries.
Deion Barnes leads the team with four tackles for losses, Anthony Zettel notched two sacks against Navy and C.J. Olaniyan replaced Stanley in the starting lineup last week against Temple. Barnes and Zettel are redshirt freshman. Olaniyan is a sophomore.
When the unit is at full strength, veteran position coach Larry Johnson could juggle defensive end pairings like a hockey coach switching lines.
Sophomore Brad Bars gives Penn State six solid defensive ends.
The depth creates fierce practices.
“We knew it was going to be very competitive because we have a lot of talent on the defensive line, especially at defensive end,” Olaniyan said. “Going into the preseason you just knew that you can’t afford a bad day. That helps everybody knowing that if you have a bad day somebody could leap over you just like that.”
The competitive environment, Johnson’s presence and NFL possibilities allowed Penn State’s line to weather this past summer’s announcement of NCAA sanctions.
True freshman Jamil Pollard, a New Jersey native who transferred to Rutgers, was the unit’s only defection.
Johnson’s “Next Man Up” motto resonates with the line, injecting confidence into young players wading into college football such as Barnes and Olaniyan.
“We both know we don’t have that much game experience so we can’t afford to go into the games making mistakes and not being ready,” Olaniyan said.
Penn State grooms linemen for leadership roles.
This year’s stalwart is Jordan Hill, a poised senior defensive tackle from Steelton who has started a team-high 20 games.
The 6-foot-1, 292-pound Hill has generated interest from the NFL scouts that O’Brien has permitted into practices this fall.
Hill also has generated double teams from opposing defenses, something he didn’t see often playing alongside Still last season.
“It’s definitely been a lot different for me, especially in the first two games when I was game-planned for a lot,” he said. “Teams were running away from me and still double-teaming down on me even when I was away from the ball.”
Hill, who has one tackle for a loss through four games, sees positives in teams thrusting two blockers at him. It clears space for fellow defensive tackle DaQuan Jones or linebackers Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Glenn Carson.
“I guess it has to leave somebody open, whether it’s another defensive tackle, defensive linemen or linebacker,” he said. “Somebody has to be free. That’s an open man to make a play.
“You can’t be selfish about it because it means you are doing your job.”
Illinois’ top 2013 draft prospects — the 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence and 6-foot-6, 250-pound defensive end Michael Buchanan — can relate to what Hill is experiencing. The Fighting Illini’s sack totals have dipped from 3.5 per game in 2011 to 1.5 this season. Tackles for losses per game are down from eight per game to five.
Spence said opponents, including Louisiana Tech, which smacked Illinois 52- 24 last week, are playing away from a defensive line that also includes senior tackle Glenn Foster and senior end Justin Staples.
Spence, Buchanan and Foster own a combined 69 career starts.
“Some teams are trying to keep us out of the game by throwing side to side,” Spence said. “We can’t always get our rush off because of quick counts. “We’re not as explosive as we want to be.”
Illinois’ defensive philosophies have changed, with the Fighting Illini blitzing less under new coordinator Tim Banks.
Penn State, coincidentally, has blitzed more under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman, like O’Brien, retained his defensive line coach.
Keith Gilmore has spent four seasons with the Fighting Illini.
“The coaching change doesn’t really affect us up front,” Spence said. “At the end of the day, you have to line up with the guy in front of you, execute your stuff and keep the man in front of you. It might have changed more for the guys behind me and the guys in the secondary.”
The Nittany Lions enter today wary of the Fighting Illini defensive front.
“That’s definitely their strong point on defense,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “They have some big-time players, some guys that put pressure on you, especially in the passing game.”
Penn State’s best preparation?
Try that group the offense has jostled with since mid-August.
“Our defensive line is really well coached and very, very good,” O’Brien said. “Those two defensive lines don’t play against each other, but it will be fun for the fans to watch two really, really good lines go at it.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy