Adrian Amos contemplated a reporter’s question shortly after Penn State’s win over Indiana.
Amos, who has been a recluse in this, his final season for Penn State, has rarely taken questions. This time, his first in front of the cameras and handheld recorders in weeks, Amos almost looked confused. Not by the question itself, rather, the safety looked like he was trying to remember the last time it was up to him to make a critical stop.
“It’s pretty fun,” Amos said. “In the backend, we don’t get a lot of work because that defensive line and Mike Hull are making all the tackles. But it’s great. It starts up front and we’ve been playing well.”
The effectiveness of ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel up front has certainly made things easier for the rest of the Nittany Lion defense. Particularly, their abilities to clog gaps and force ballcarriers into the tackling paths of linebackers have eased the burden on Penn State’s secondary.
Starting linebackers Mike Hull, Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman have accounted for 43 percent of the defense’s tackles this season and the front seven have made 74 percent of the stops overall. Meanwhile, defensive backs Trevor Williams, Jordan Lucas, Marcus Allen and Amos have only had to make 26 percent of the team’s stops, 12 percent less than last season.
“I think Coach (Bob) Shoop does a great job of gapping everything out via blitz or base coverage up front,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. “We’re just part of the puzzle. Any time you get safeties filling like Marcus Allen is doing right now and the outstanding play of Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell, obviously the front four gets a lot of credit for that but there’s a lot of moving parts that make that special.”
Last season the team’s starting defensive backs were forced to make nearly 40 percent of the team’s tackles, a workload that wore on them.
All those collisions began to add up and by the midpoint of the season, Penn State’s secondary was a hobbled group wrecked by sore shoulders and other ailments. Amos, who had to make 50 stops last season and had to sit out the season finale with an injury, has only had to make 25 tackles as a senior.
Not needed so much for run support, Amos and his teammates have been able to focus on their coverage responsibilities and the secondary has been better off for it. Penn State ranks 13th among FBS teams against the pass.
Penn State has been even better against the run. The Nittany Lions will send the nation’s top rush defense, allowing just under 86 yards per game, to face Temple at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. It’s something Shoop, Spencer and linebackers coach Brent Pry continuously remind their players of each week.
For Spencer, it means a lot that Penn State’s defensive line is contributing and sparking so many meaningful plays. And it’s not just the starting unit doing so. Spencer, who’s coached defensive linemen for going on 15 seasons, said he’s never been around a group as deep as this one.
“This is a very, very talented group. I’m very confident that at any point in time I put those guys in a game that they’re going to do something,” Spencer said.
Senior end Brad Bars has joined fellow end Carl Nassib and tackles Tyrone Smith, Tarow Barney and Parker Cothren to form a formidable second grouping. Garrett Sickels has also gotten a chance to play this season.
For Bars, it’s been a comfortable adjustment getting to play in a reserve role, especially after he missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
“It’s kind of crazy because I thought I was 100 percent healthy in camp,” Bars said. “But you kind of realize as you progress through the season that you can do more and more things which is pretty exciting because I actually feel better than I did a month ago, better than two months ago.”
Spencer has seen plenty of improvement from the rest of his defensive linemen too. Barnes is leading the team in sacks a year after he fell of the map following his Big Ten Freshman of the Year season in 2012. Barnes has six sacks and has made the most of reps beside Johnson who’s become a regular contributor and Zettel who moved inside after playing end the previous two seasons.
The key for Barnes has been easy enough Spencer said. He’s not thinking as much. He’s simply reacting.
“Two years ago he was the Big Ten Rookie of the Year and then last year, on paper his play wasn’t as good,” Spencer said. “But that’s a guy that I have high expectations for and a guy that has high expectations for himself. And anytime that you get the coach and the player on the same page, you’ve got a great formula.”
That always seemed to be the case with former longtime assistant Larry Johnson, who is now coaching for Ohio State. A beloved figure by his players, Johnson always seemed to pull the best out of his defensive linemen. His coaching helped prep many players — who were often the teeth of stingy Penn State defenses — for the NFL.
Now Spencer is doing the same.
“Every day in practice he’s super energetic and he always gets us going every day,” Bars said. “First of all it starts on the practice field with him and in the film room. He just wants us to be super prepared. And the other thing I really respect about him is he always gets everybody in the room incorporated. So whether you’re a fourth-team guy or first-team guy, he’s coaching you up hard and he has the same expectation for everyone in the room.”
That’s why Spencer feels perfectly comfortable sending a group of younger players out on the field in key situations. It was by his design that Barney and Cothren got multiple fourth-quarter series against Michigan and Ohio State and have also played late in games against Indiana and Central Florida.
“I think all three of us believe that having fresh guys in there is certainly better than having a guy that’s tired and wilted,” Spencer said. “And those second time guys have earned the right to get on the field. If you’ve got a chance to play eight, nine guys throughout the course of a game and sometimes even 10, I think it makes the room even better because everybody’s held accountable and everybody knows that they have a role. No greater or no less in that role.”