UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s been just over a month since Ted Roof left his position as Penn State’s defensive coordinator to take the same job at Georgia Tech.
While Penn State players were drawn to Roof for his tell-it-like-it-is demeanor that complimented his sense of humor, they are equally optimistic about his successor — John Butler.
“We really appreciate everything Coach Roof did for us. He was a funny guy, high-intensity, great coach,” Penn State defensive end Brad Bars said. “But moving forward, Coach Butler, he’s outstanding. He’s one of those guys who’s going to coach for a long time. He’s really special. He works his butt off for us.”
While Roof was known for his fiery displays on Penn State’s sidelines and his aggressive schemes that included numerous blitz packages, Butler, who coached Penn State’s defensive backs last season, hasn’t been shy about letting his emotions surface on gamedays.
His personality should lend itself to multiple, aggressive schemes used by Roof, multiple players said. Although they won’t know for sure until they get onto the field and Butler can tinker and adjust his plans accordingly for the personel he has.
Penn State returns six defensive starters from last season’s squad. The Nittany Lions finished second in the Big Ten after allowing an average of 19.1 points per game and will have to replace defensive linemen Jordan Hill and Sean Stanley, linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti and defensive back Stephon Morris from last season’s squad.
“It’s probably going to be similar,” Penn State cornerback Adrian Amos said. “It might be a lot different. You’ve just got to go with what’s going on.”
Butler will be aided by newly-hired safeties coach Anthony Midget who has arrived in Happy Valley and has met and spoken with players, Amos said.
Robinson looking forward to QB battle
Count Allen Robinson among those intrigued by Penn State’s sudden depth at the quarterback spot.
Robinson, who completed a blistering sophomore season for Penn State last year, will spend his spring and summer days catching passes from at least three different quarterbacks, each of which could win the starting job head coach Bill O’Brien said.
“One thing that I can say about all of the QBs is that they’re working their butts off,” Robinson said. “We have young guys, they’re getting their noses in the playbook. They’re out there getting their reps and everything like that.”
Currently, Penn State has sophomores Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson on campus studying their playbooks in preparation for their looming position battle. Bench played sparingly behing Matt McGloin last season while Ferguson manned the offense for College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif.
“He’s a player. Coach O’Brien is a great recruiter so he knew what he was bringing in,” Robinson said of Ferguson. “He’s a guy that wants to come in here and compete and he’s from California, so he wouldn’t come all this way and not want to compete.”
Highly-rated prospect Christian Hackenberg will join the quarterback competition in the summer.
Robinson, who caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns last season is looking forward to his junior campaign. He’s heard motivation from O’Brien almost daily about surpassing his sophomore totals which were good enough to earn him the Big Ten Receiver of the Year award.
“With coach O’Brien as the head coach, I don’t think you can ever rest,” Robinson said. “Same thing with (strengh and conditioning) Coach (Craig) Fitz(gerald). Those guys push me every day as if I had zero catches.”
Offensive line shakeups not a concern
Although Penn State lost two valued pieces from last season’s offensive line — center Matt Stankiewitch and right tackle Mike Farrell — there is a steadfast confidence among Nittany Lion players that this year’s unit shouldn’t miss a beat.
While Stankiewitch and Farrell combined for 35 starts over the last two seasons, Penn State’s offense is blessed with a wealth of experienced linemen. Some are waiting for chances to step up, others can fill valuable depth slots.
Left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Miles Dieffenbach and right guard John Urschel are all back after helping Penn State field the second best passing offense in the Big Ten last season. Ty Howle, Angelo Mangiro, Adam Gress and Eric Shrive are also back after making appearances last season.
On Saturday at the team’s annual THON Make-A-Wish event, Urschel raved about Smith’s progress. Last season Smith played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman and made nine starts protecting McGloin’s blind side.
“The guy is just a great physical specimen,” Urschel said. “The guy is huge. Has long arms, tall. If you guys look at his legs you’ll see tree trunks. But at the same time he is an athletic kid. The guy can move. He can get out of his stance. He’s quick. He’s agile. I think he’s going to be a heck of a football player for us and he’s got a lot of years left.”
Former tight end Garry Gilliam has added nearly 30 pounds of bulk to his 6-foot-6 frame and has moved to offensive tackle where he could play opposite of Smith on the right side. Gilliam was used primarily as a blocking tight end in O’Brien’s system last season.
He recently received a sixth year of eligibility meaning Gilliam will be permitted to play the next two seasons.
“Garry’s a great player. I think he’ll do a great job at tackle,” Bars said. “He carries his weight pretty well. It kind of caught all of us by surprise. He works hard in the weight room and everything. I think it’s good weight because you can’t really tell. He’s looking good.”
Bars ready to compete at defensive end
Ready for a larger role along Penn State’s defensive line last season, Bars had to temper his expectations after an injury in training camp limited his ability to make an impact.
Now, the defensive end from Nashville, Tenn. is entering his junior season ready for an increased role again.
“I feel like this is the season that I’m going to take my game to the next level. My expectations have risen a lot,” Bars said. “I expect to start and I expect to be a key player on this team this year.”
Bars will be one of a handful of defensive linemen looking to replace the productivity of departed ends Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro. Penn State also returns juniors C.J. Olaniyan and sophomores Deion Barnes and Anthony Zettel. Barnes ascended last season as Penn State’s most dangerous pass rusher. He finished with a team-high six sacks while Stanley and Zettel added four apiece.
Meanwhile, Bars was limited to eight games last season although he did play in Penn State’s final two games against Indiana and Wisconsin. The 6-foot-3, 254-pound Bars finished 2012 with two tackles and contributed heavily on special teams.
“It kind of set me back a little bit,” Bars said of the unspecified injury that hampered him last season. “Being healthy and able to compete, I’ll have a good chance.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_