At Vanderbilt, the coaches called the position “star.” At Penn State, it doesn’t have a catchy name yet. Come to think of it, the last depth chart the Nittany Lions released didn’t even make mention of it.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be a key factor for the Lions’ defense this fall.
“It” would be a hybrid safety/linebacker position, one that skews more toward a defensive back. For Penn State, it represents a way to combat the growing number of spread offenses across the country as well as a way to perhaps offset the Lions’ lack of depth at linebacker this season.
“There’s ways to scheme around any limitations and depth at any position,” Lions defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said Monday before the team’s first preseason practice. “Specifically as it relates to linebacker, this star package or the 4-2-5 package is one of the ways teams can do that.
“I think it plays in our favor to a certain extent because … I feel strongly that safety is a position at depth for us. We have toyed around and tinkered with playing a third safety, a 4-2-5, that star package. … And that could be a number of different people.”
Shoop, a former Division I head coach at Columbia, proved adept at tinkering with his defense from year-to- year while at Vanderbilt to best fit his personnel. The Commodores finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense the last two seasons.
Though Vanderbilt saw an uptick in points allowed in 2013, Shoop was able to offset that by having his charges play the ball more aggressively. The Commodores ultimately forced 29 turnovers to rank among the national leaders.
What does that mean for Penn State in 2014? For starters, Shoop’s ability to adapt his defense may be enough to calm some nerves about a linebacker corps that has just three (healthy) players — Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell — who have any significant experience.
The Lions still figure, of course, to run a base 4-3 scheme with all three of those guys on the field. But in certain situations or against certain opponents, they won’t be shy about shifting things around.
It could be a veteran starter like Adrian Amos or Jordan Lucas who moves closer to the line of scrimmage to give a different look. Or maybe even a true freshman like California transplant Koa Farmer proves up for the job.
A year ago, Bill O’Brien’s staff called Amos the team’s most versatile player, one who could play any number of roles, possibly even outside linebacker in certain packages. Shoop agrees.
“I think Adrian Amos, and I’ve said this a hundred times now, has as good a skillset as anybody I’ve ever been around,” said Shoop, who is the staff’s oldest coach at 47.
A pair of fifth-year senior safeties in Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle could provide some freedom to move Amos and others around as needed. Malik Golden, entering his redshirt sophomore season, saw his snaps increase toward the end of last season including a strong showing late in the finale against Wisconsin.
The point here is that Shoop has some options.
“That star position enables (that),” said Shoop, who also is directly coaching the safeties this season. “We can play an outside linebacker there in certain situations, we can play a hybrid outside linebacker, strong safety, someone like Adrian or Golden. We can play a corner there, like Lucas.
“All the star is in some ways is a nickel, and he can do some of that stuff as well.”
Surging up front
Regardless of how the back seven align on most downs, the success of the Lions defense this year will likely depend on the guys in the trenches. Starting with veteran ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes.
Shoop likes his odds.
“I’m really excited about our defensive ends,” Shoop said. “I think between Barnes and C.J., we have as good a one-two punch as there in the league.”