UNIVERSITY PARK — Adrian Amos has been asked about leadership — Who are the leaders on this year’s Penn State football team? — plenty of times this season.
The names have largely stayed the same and have been those of players who did plenty last season to assert themselves for the Nittany Lions. But Amos has been around long enough and played enough football to know that such a list can always grow.
“Leaders emerge during the season,” Amos said. “You can’t predict leaders, they just emerge on their own.”
Enter C.J. Olaniyan. The junior defensive end was rarely mentioned before this season. Now he’s become an every-down defensive threat for the Nittany Lions.
Not only does Olaniyan lead Penn State in sacks with five, he also ranks in the top 10 in the Big Ten in that category and also for forced fumbles (3) and tackles for loss (11). His emergence has helped Penn State’s defense improve over the second half of the season as the Nittany Lions have put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and generated more turnovers.
On Saturday, Olaniyan and the rest of Penn State’s defense will face a strong rushing attack. The Wisconsin Badgers will bring into Camp Randall Stadium the country’s eighth-best running attack, one that features a hefty offensive line and two backs who have each surpassed 1,200 yards this season.
And at 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, Olaniyan will be the smallest defensive end on the field for either team. He can’t wait for the chance to stop Wisconsin’s duo of Melvin Gordon and James White.
“I love when we play teams that run the ball, because I like to be physical,” Olaniyan said. “So I know it’s going to be a physical day and a physical game. Each play you’ve got to bring it.”
Olaniyan was named one of the defense’s most improved players and shared the Jim O’Hora award with Jordan Lucas for his efforts during spring practice.
Having played behind a host of defensive ends in 2012, Olaniyan wanted to improve his flexibility and explosiveness in order to earn more playing time. He also spent ample time studying Penn State’s defense and watching film to become more adaptable and play multiple roles.
Olaniyan has become one of Penn State’s more versatile defenders, lining up on the outside of offensive tackles as a rush end or inside as a defensive tackle.
He’s also functioned as an extra linebacker, dropping into coverage on zone blitzes.
“He’s grown up and he’s played some good football for us,” head coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s a long guy. He’s got long arms and he’s an instinctive player and a tough kid. He’ll continue to get better.”
Since the spring, the junior from Warren, Mich., has had special inspiration for elevating his play.
His daughter, Nala, was born the day after the Blue-White game.
Olaniyan said he realized with a daughter on the way, he’d need to step up in a hurry if he wanted to elevate his game to an NFL-caliber level in order to support the addition to his family in the best way possible.
“Basically, my life changed,” Olaniyan said. “It wasn’t about me any more.
“Every time I went through a workout, every time I have to do something for a game, I understand that I’m doing it for my family.”