UNIVERSITY PARK — Three of Penn State’s four starting defensive backs live together, which means coverage schemes are part of the daily conversation in the Morris/Willis/Obeng-Agyapong/Moseby-Felder house.
Brandon Moseby-Felder, the only resident who doesn’t roam the secondary, has learned to tune these sessions out. He plays wide receiver.
Stephon Morris plays cornerback. Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong are safeties.
They are energetic players, fast talkers and proud of what their unit has accomplished this season. They are also never fully satisfied, even following performance such as last Saturday’s 34-9 victory at Purdue. Their big goals results in at-home film sessions.
“It helps a lot,” Willis said of the living situation. “We don’t necessarily have to go to the film room to watch film. We can do it on our own. With us being defensive backs, we can relate to each other and tell each other the tendencies we see.”
Their bond has helped the Nittany Lions’ secondary, an early-season enigma that has stabilized midway through the Big Ten schedule.
The unit returned no starters and struggled limiting third-down conversions in season-opening losses to Ohio University and Virginia. The options were limited because the unit featured just six players who arrived at Penn State toting scholarships. Three were true freshmen.
Those facts mattered in September. They mean little now.
Purdue tried attacking the perimeter of Penn State’s defense. The results were an ineffective 33-of-62 passing performance. Three days later, Morris had the numbers memorized.
“We have come a long way,” Morris said Tuesday. “Ohio, UVA, we took a lot of criticism because we couldn’t get off the field on third downs. In the past games from Temple to Illinois to Iowa, we just got better each and every game. Purdue tested us a lot. I believe they threw the ball 62 times and 53 percent completion rate. That’s definitely good on our part.”
The Boilermakers tested the unit early, throwing three straight passes after moving the ball to the Penn State 4-yard line less than two minutes into the game.
Cornerback sophomore Adrian Amos, the fourth starter, lowered his right shoulder and plowed into Dolapo Macarthy, holding the 6-foot-5 Boilermaker to a 1-yard reception on a first-down swing pass. The drive stalled on the 3, as the 5-foot-8 Morris defended a fade to 6-foot-6 tight end Gabe Holmes and safety Jake Fagnano interrupted a crossing route on third down.
The sequence forced Purdue to settle for a field goal and foreshadowed the next 58 minutes.
The Boilermakers didn’t score again until the game’s final play. Penn State’s defensive starters didn’t participate in the touchdown drive.
“Across the board, those guys in the secondary are so much improved,” linebacker Michael Mauti said. “They are a group that didn’t have a lot of experience coming into the year. Like you saw last week, they were making plays in the perimeter, really playing their responsibilities and coming up and making big hits when we needed them.”
The unit has assumed the persona of secondary coach John Butler, whose fiery gameday and practice personality makes him a television producer’s dream. Like his players, Butler realized early-season critics lurked everywhere. The volume of critics has dwindled. Penn State’s pass defense is allowing 209.4 yards per conference game.
“As a competitor, everybody in the secondary, sometimes we pay attention to things,” Willis said. “We try to come out and play every game regardless of what people are saying about the secondary, how we are young and how we are inexperienced. If the coaches didn’t have confidence in us, we wouldn’t be on the field.”
Their recent play has satisfied the leader of Penn State’s coaching staff.
“You can’t say enough about the players in that position,” head coach Bill O’Brien said. “We have three games left. Let’s hope they improve. But to this point in the season, they have done everything we have asked them to do.”
The closing stretch begins Saturday at 18th-ranked Nebraska (7-2, 4-1). The game, and the looming matchup with quarterback Taylor Martinez and top targets Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner, is dominating the discourse in one State College house.
“Last week was a big step in the right direction in our pursuit to the ball,” Willis said. “We had 9, 10 guys going to the ball on any given play. It’s really good to see that.”