- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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They decided to tell their teammates the truth. At least the truth according to those outside the program.
At the end of each workout in the spring and now in the summer, Willis and Morris gather the other Lions defensive backs.
"We huddle them up, we talk to them and say, 'We're supposedly the worst unit on this team,'" Willis told ESPN.com "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability. We know what we can do. We know the ability we have and what we're capable of."
The outside skepticism makes sense. Penn State loses all four starters from 2011: safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. Although players like Willis, Morris and sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos have been very much in the mix -- they combined for 65 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2011 -- depth is a significant question mark, especially with the offseason departures of cornerbacks Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake.
The Lions will need their young defensive backs to step up in a big way. And that's who Willis and Morris direct their message to following workouts.
"Every day we say that, these younger guys, they're hyped up, they're juiced up and they want to do extra work," Willis said. "Right after that, they want to go watch some film with us, or they want to go work on their footwork, just giving that extra effort and that extra attention to detail. It really shows me these guys want to be great this year."
Penn State's defensive fortunes could hinge on the secondary this season. While there are significant changes in State College, namely the arrival of new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and his "multiply aggressive" scheme, several elements remain the same.
The front seven, as usual, should be very strong. First-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returns, along with Michael Mauti, back from a knee injury. Pete Massaro also returns at defensive end and joins a line featuring tackle Jordan Hill, end Sean Stanley, tackle DaQuan Jones and end Deion Barnes, an extremely promising redshirt freshman. The line and linebackers also both return their position coaches -- Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from the previous staff -- while the secondary has a new boss (John Butler).
Add in the new scheme, which includes some Cover 3 but not nearly as much as the system under Tom Bradley, and the secondary can be seen as one giant question mark.
"A lot of people say we're the weakest group on the team," Willis said. "We were like, 'We need to motivate these guys to let them know what people think.' Reading it is one thing on the Internet, but when somebody says it to your face, it has to hit a nerve. And you really have to be offended by it."
Willis and Morris are getting the desired result so far. Willis has been impressed with the way fellow safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Tim Buckley have approached the offseason. Obeng-Agyapong is projected to start alongside Willis, while Buckley saw some time with the first-team defense this spring.
"When I see the D-backs, I see a whole bunch of hard-working people," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "They're always out there trying to get better, trying to do one-on-ones, anything to help the defense.
"I don't see any weak link."
1hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information