Penn State has a proven player at one defensive end spot: Deion Barnes, who went from newcomer to star in 2012.
As for who will man the other end position, and who will provide needed depth in this defensive unit, well that’s a work in progress during preseason camp.
Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro have moved on from last year’s group, and junior Brad Bars was lost for the season to an Achilles tendon injury.
So Nittany Lions fans may be reaching for their lineup cards early and often this fall as unproven players make their way onto the field, perhaps as soon as the Aug. 31 opener against Syracuse.
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“We’ve got some young guys we’re counting on to show up,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said.
“Losing Bars hurts us. He was a veteran player and added depth to the end position,” Johnson said. “So we’ll need someone to step up. That’s the great thing about coaching. You get to see who that will be. We’re going to push them and see what we can get done.”
The Lions have no seniors listed among the defensive ends on the training camp roster.
Junior C.J. Olaniyan seems poised to take over the starting spot opposite Barnes. Olaniyan had 15 tackles and one sack last year.
Redshirt sophomore Anthony Zettel tallied 15 tackles in 2012. Sophomore Carl Nassib did not see any game action last season.
After that, you’re into the redshirt and true freshmen, including Evan Schwan, who sat out the 2012 season at Penn State after helping lead Central Dauphin to the Pennsylvania Class AAAA championship in 2011.
“Brad Bars was going to be a key player,” Schwan said. “I have to do the best I can to fill in.”
That’s a common sentiment in this unit.
“Our theme for camp is to rally,” Schwan said. “That means to chase the ball. It also means we want to come together as a group. So rally has multiple meanings for us.”
Bars had two tackles in 2012 but looked to get more opportunities this year. That is, until he ruptured his right Achilles tendon during a workout in July. He came out of spring practice No. 2 on the depth chart at one end position.
Bars’ injury will mean another redshirt freshman, Albert Hall, could get his chance to shine.
And first-year players Curtis Cothran and Garrett Sickles could be asked to contribute to the football team even as they’re still finding their way around campus.
Junior Kyle Baublitz, a projected starter at defensive tackle, could also see playing time at end, head coach Bill O’Brien said.
“Losing Brad Bars was not the greatest thing in the world,” O’Brien said. “But as we’ve said from Day 1 here, it’s: ‘Next guy up.’”
O’Brien wondered: “Can Evan Schwan keep improving and help? And can one of the freshmen get ready? Can Curtis Cothran or Garrett Sickels come right in and help us?”
“We’ve really talked about bringing the freshmen into the group quickly,” Schwan said. “If we’re going to be successful as a defensive line unit, everybody is going to have to play and contribute.”
The known quantity in this group is Barnes, who started eight games in 2012 and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Barnes was a consensus freshman all-American after recording 26 tackles and six sacks. He is on watch lists for various honors as the 2013 campaign approaches.
“Deion has been getting bigger and more physical in our weight room, and that has carried over to the field,” O’Brien said. “I believe he’ll play the run better this year. Everybody knows he can rush the passer.”
“It’s all about trusting my teammates,” Barnes said. “I’m not going to be able to make every play. I’m going to need to be able to trust them.”
He added: “We lost a key piece. But the guy behind him has got to be ready to step up and play.”
Whoever that guy is.