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Friday, April 6, 2012
PSU secondary goes through the motions

By Adam Rittenberg

The Hero position is history, and the Cover 3 is more of a schematic layer than an identity.

Penn State's secondary is going through some changes, and fans will notice some of them even before the ball is snapped.

"There's a lot of movement," safety Malcolm Willis said, "where in the past we were stationary before the ball was snapped. Now we have a lot of looks to give the offense and there is more activeness from the secondary, linebackers, and even the defensive line."

Malcolm Willis
Without proven playmakers in the secondary, the Nittany Lions need someone like Malcolm Willis to step up.
Tempo is the biggest change Willis has noticed this spring under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Penn State is operating faster on both sides of the ball, following Roof's mantra of being "multiply aggressive."

While Bill O'Brien's innovative offense undoubtedly will be welcomed in State College, Penn State's defense faces a more complicated challenge. Penn State has produced top 20 defenses in seven of the past eight seasons. The Lions ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2011 and have finished in the top 20 six times in the past eight seasons. They ran a no-frills scheme rooted in the Cover 3, productive front-seven players and strong fundamental play.

Roof understands this, telling in February, "Everybody in college football respects what they've done. At the same time, I don't know exactly what they've done. All I know is it's worked."

The key for Roof is to blend his ideas and not diminish a system that has been successful.

"He's implemented a lot of different things," said Willis, who recorded 33 tackles, an interception, a blocked kick and a fumble recovery in 2011. "Of course, the Cover 3 thing will be standard of past years. Not to say we don't have any Cover 3 things, but it's a lot of different looks we're having to learn and different techniques we're having to learn."

Penn State loses two multiyear starters at safety in Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, who played the Hero position. Although Willis has extensive experience, starting in place of the injured Sukay in 2010, the Lions lack proven players in the secondary.

The Lions will be leaning on players such as Willis, cornerback Stephon Morris and even cornerback Adrian Amos, who stepped in as a true freshman last fall. Willis has been practicing at free safety this spring (Penn State is now going with the standard free safety and strong safety labels).

"I'm just trying to go out every day and get better and prove to the coaches that I'm a guy they should look to to lead the group," Willis said.

It starts with welcoming the changes, not resisting them.

"It's really exciting to get to do something different," Willis said, "make plays in space and prove that Penn State is a team that can play in all different kinds of looks."