The thick and chiseled meet the lithe and swift when Penn State plays defense.
The abundance of spread offenses on the schedule forces Penn State’s linebackers to often act like defensive backs. That will be case Saturday when Northwestern visits Beaver Stadium.
The Wildcats are thriving behind their spread attack, which will force players such as 6-foot-3, 235-pound middle linebacker Glenn Carson to potentially cover as many as five different receivers: Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lewis Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Kain Colter.
“It’s definitely a big challenge, something you are continuing to work on and improving,” Carson said. “When you are a 230-pound linebacker, it’s tough to cover someone.”
Carson said job requires more than one man.
“You basically have to know where your help is and kind of get the right kind of leverage on the receiver,” he said. “You’re anticipating what’s coming other than just reacting on the field.”
Communication and anticipation helped Carson and fellow linebackers Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Mike Hull halt Illinois’ spread offense last week. Penn State didn’t budge on a third-down play until late in the third quarter.
The linebackers thwarted passes early as Carson extended his right arm to deflect a throw on Illinois’ third offensive snap.
The linebackers’ signature pass coverage series came late in the half, with Illinois attempting four straight pass plays inside the Nittany Lion 10. Hodges tracked tight end Eddie Vilunas on the first play, a low throw that skipped off the turf. Hodges, Mauti and Hull dropped into coverage on the second play, another incompletion. Illinois converted a third-down pass, but it went for just five yards because safety Adrian Amos and Mauti chased Ryan Lankford out of bounds.
On fourth down, Mauti crept toward the line. Before the snap, he dropped into coverage, examined Nate Scheelhaase’s eyes, stepped between the quarterback and Lankford, intercepted a pass and raced 99 yards. He came within a yard of scoring.
Mauti said there are two types of linebackers: ones with innate coverage skills and those requiring polish before chasing receivers and tailbacks in the open field.
“It’s a process,” he said. “It comes with a lot of experience because the more experience you have, the more you can read formations, read splits of receivers and combinations. The more you can see, the more you can kind of start anticipating a little bit. There are a lot of guys that are naturally gifted that put themselves in those positions, but there’s a lot of studying involved and a lot of film. It can grow with experience.”
Carson said practices vary depending on opponents. Weekday staples include seven-on-seven competitions and look-search drills that require linebackers to drop into coverage, scan the field and track a receiver.
A thin secondary, which uses true freshman Da’Quan Davis as a third cornerback, has expanded
linebackers’ coverage responsibilities. Hull, who was clocked under 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash in high school, enters the game and Amos moves to safety on third-down passing situations. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof calls the grouping a “big nickel” or “little linebacker” package.
“We’re just trying to be as athletic as we can and put our most athletic people out there,” Roof said.
Keeping players fresh is another goal. Linebackers are also involved in special teams, and Penn State is looking to avoid repeating the second-half collapse it endured in a 24-14 season-opening loss to Ohio University.
“All those reps build up and by the end of the year, that’s a significant number,” Roof said. “We want to rotate and get as many different guys on the field as we can. Late in games and late during the season hopefully it will pay off for us.”
Staying fresh ranks high on Saturday’s priority list. Northwestern attempted a dizzying 93 offensive plays last week against Indiana. Tracking receivers for that long can exhaust even the fittest linebackers.
“This week will be a test for us as far as our linebackers,” Mauti said. “I think we have proved we can stop the run. Our linebackers have done a pretty good job of filling gaps well and tackling well. It’s just a really good challenge for us in the passing game.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.