Penn State Football

Penn State football: Shortage of defensive backs keeps Lions out of nickel

Secondary coach John Butler has a logical response for those wanting Penn State to use nickel coverages.

“We will play nickel when we have nickel personnel,” Butler said Wednesday.

Translation: Don’t look for the Nittany Lions to unveil schemes featuring five defensive backs in this season’s final six games.

A numbers crunch, which surfaced before the NCAA levied major sanctions against the school, has altered Butler’s first season. By his count, the current secondary includes six players who arrived at Penn State with scholarships.

When opponents reach third-and-long situations, Butler calls on his “roadrunner” package, which involves moving Adrian Amos from corner to safety, inserting true freshman Da’Quan Davis at corner and using athletic linebacker Mike Hull in pass coverage. If Butler gets his way, the package will represent nothing more than a short-term fix.

“One of the first things we have to do with this thing is solve it with recruiting,” he said. “I know a lot of the readers out there are wondering why we don’t play nickel. I guess I’m wondering why I only have six DBs when I took the job here. We’ll get that solve through time by getting our secondary numbers up to 11 and 12 and hopefully be able to play some nickel and some dime.”

While most units are bracing for fewer scholarship players, the number of scholarship players in the secondary should rise beginning next season.

Davis, along with Jordan Lucas and Jake Kiley, are true freshmen. Three members of the 2013 recruiting class — Neiko Robinson, Kasey Gaines and Jordan Smith —play defensive back. Cornerback Stephon Morris is the only senior starter in the secondary.

“Obviously the sanctions are going to effect our recruiting and everybody’s number is going to take a hit or two,” Butler said. “But I’m playing with a depleted roster so for my position, it’s only going to get better not only to play nickel but to play special teams.

“When you look at your best special teams players, it should be your defensive backs, your linebackers, your running backs and an occasional receiver. It has to be the guys that can run and are physical. That’s the other reason the secondary has to be the biggest area of improvement in recruiting.”

Penn State coaches are using the bye week to fortify recruiting efforts. Besides scouring the east and south for defensive backs, Butler, a southeastern Pennsylvania native, covers Bucks and Montgomery Counties for the program.

“It’s actually perfect timing to have your bye week in Week 7,” he said. “You can’t have it any better than that.”

He’s still clubbing

Donovan Smith can’t avoid wearing extra protection around key body parts.

The redshirt freshman left tackle is still wearing a club to protect his injured right hand. Smith debuted the club in last Saturday’s 39-28 victory over Northwestern.

Enduring pain is becoming a theme for Smith. An ankle injury forced him to miss victories over Temple and Navy.

“Donovan is a really gifted player, a really special athlete,” offensive line coach Mac McWhorter said. “His misfortune and our misfortune is that he’s been really banged-up this year. In today’s game, it’s really hard to play offensive line when you can’t use your hand. We are just trying to fight through it. He has a great future and we are excited about the way he’s progressing. He’s looking forward to getting both hands.”

Missing from the list

Not seeing Michael Mauti’s name on the list of 25 quarterfinalists for the Lombardi Award bothers some of his biggest admirers.

“It’s disrespectful to how well he’s been playing all year,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “He’s really been having a great year. There aren’t too many guys that have been playing like he has. It’s a disappointment. But like I always say, as a football player you use anything as motivation and he can use that as motivation.”

The award is presented to the nation’s top defensive lineman or linebacker. Four Big Ten players landed on the list, which makes the snub puzzling. Mauti has already captured the conference’s defensive player of the week award twice through six weeks.

“It’s a team game and I’m sure Mauti doesn’t look at those things,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “But if he’s not in my opinion one of the top five linebackers in the country, then I’m not sure who is.”