Bob Shoop has watched plenty of film of Penn State’s 2013 defense since he joined James Franklin’s staff as defensive coordinator seven months ago.
He’s seen the letdowns in the secondary — a unit that gave up an average of 237 yards per game last season. He’s seen the miscommunication that led to opponents gashing Penn State with 121 passing plays of 10 yards or more, 40 of which went for 20 yards or more. He’s seen the breakdown in coverages that allowed opposing quarterbacks to toss 18 touchdown passes.
But, Shoop also saw progress this spring. And he sees potential now.
“We are excited about the experience in the secondary,” Shoop said. “I think Adrian Amos, I said this 100 times now has as good a skill set as anybody I’ve ever been around. Ryan Keiser is the proverbial coach on the field and is an underrated athlete. There’s a guy who made a lot of plays. And Jordan Lucas is ready to take his game in the next level and Trevor Williams has really embraced being a corner and has improved maybe as much as anybody over the course of the summer. (I’m) really looking forward to working with those guys on the back end.”
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For much of last season, the secondary was a work in progress. But with former defensive coordinator John Butler calling the shots and coaching a slapped-together group that consisted of two new starters and a handful of former offensive players, Nittany Lion defensive backs never seemed to be on the same page.
It didn’t help that one of their more experienced players — departed safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong who previously played every game over three years in the secondary — was moved to linebacker in training camp. Meanwhile, Amos — who’s made a career of being a chameleon on defense — moved from safety to cornerback while Williams spent the first few games trying to learn a new position on the fly.
The secondary wasn’t immune to injuries, either. Keiser broke his left hand in the fourth game of the season. And while he was able to gradually work back into the lineup three weeks later, Penn State gave up 854 passing yard and went 1-2 in his absence.
While listening to the numbers — Penn State’s pass defense was 74th among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 59 percent of their passes — Keiser offered a solemn nod and a proclamation.
“We want to be the best secondary we can be and we’re going to do that by coming out ever day, trying to get better at practice — communicating, in the film room — whatever we have to do to be great,” Keiser said. “We’re going to be pushing each other, competing and trying to make everybody better.”
That includes players who saw their playing time dwindle last season. Among them, Williams, safety Malik Golden and cornerback Da’Quan Davis.
Williams and Golden have endured similar career arcs at Penn State. Golden was recruited by Joe Paterno’s staff to play corner, was moved to wide receiver and then to safety during spring practice last season. Williams was switched from wide receiver to corner.
“Both of those guys are obviously selfless guys,” Keiser said. “Being moved from offense to defense, you have to be a team player. That’s what both of those guys are, Malik and Trevor.”
Williams admitted last season featured a steep learning curve.
Paired with Lucas as the team’s cornerback tandem in its base defense, Williams struggled in one-on-one coverage on the boundary — or short side of the field. Eventually, Williams lost his starting job as Amos was moved up from safety and started the final six games.
“I think for me last year, I wasn’t very comfortable as I thought playing the position,” Williams said. “But this past offseason I’ve trusted my coaches, Coach Shoop and (defensive backs) Coach (Terry) Smith, just to put me in a great position and watching a lot of film, studying and critiquing myself. Last year was a learning experience and I just hope to get better.”
“I’m excited and eager to get out on the field and show that this year’s going to be different from last year.”
Meanwhile, opportunities could be plentiful for Penn State safeties, specifically Golden. Shoop has discussed the option of using a 4-2-5 formation that could include three safeties to counter spread offenses.
It’ll be a welcome set of new responsibility for Golden who didn’t see the field in a major defensive role until the season finale against Wisconsin. When Amos injured an ankle before the game, Golden slotted in next to Malcolm Willis. He finished with three tackles and broke up a pass. Williams also ended the season strong with an interception against the Badgers.
“I just needed to be more in the playbook, be more consistent, just be a better tackler and whenever I’m on the field, try and make plays,” Golden said.
Both Golden and Williams said learning to be physical consistently was a part of their adjustment to playing defense. Players who transition from offense to defense must get used to squaring up and hitting a ballcarrier who’s also often carrying more momentum.
A split-second of hesitation — anticipating or bracing for a collision — can be the difference between making a play and blowing a coverage or missing a tackle, Golden said.
“You do have to learn how to handle the Zach Zwinaks and the shifty guys like Bill (Belton) and Akeel (Lynch),” Golden said. “So I got that under my belt last year and now it’s kind of just like, let’s go. I can really play fast.”
Davis said he feels the same way.
As one of the smallest players on the team when he broke in as a true freshman in 2012, the then 158-pound Davis earned ample playing time on passing downs. Then, Amos — who was a starting cornerback — would switch to safety and yield his corner spot to Davis with linebacker Mike Hull taking on a coverage role.
Now that he’s up to 177 pounds, Davis, a junior, is ready to take on any role asked of him.
“Technically, I knew the playbook but physically, I had to make some gains,” Davis said. “That’s what I always tell people. I wish I could’ve redshirted just to get that physical aspect and know how to play college football. I feel like my sophomore year, that’s kind of what I did.”
A role that has yet to be assigned is that of the star position. Much like Obeng-Agyapong last year, Shoop is looking for a few players who can play in the box and also cover speedy slot receivers outside of it.
The way this group sees it, it’s just another opportunity. Like Shoop, Penn State’s defensive backs see potential.
“As far as the star, we would love to have a DB there,” Golden said. “The safeties would love for it to be a safety to add some speed and also have another big body on the field.”