A certain electricity lit up the Penn State defense as soon as John Butler was named the team’s new defensive coordinator.
“There was definitely a sense of excitement,” Penn State safety Stephen Obeng-Agypong said. “He’s a natural-born leader.”
“I’m excited,” returning Big Ten honorable mention safety Adrian Amos said, “for the secondary, for the season.”
What other reaction would anyone expect over the promotion of the easily excitable Butler, who chest-bumped and high-fived his way through last season as Penn State’s secondary coach?
And it’s not just the guys in Penn State’s defensive backfield who are gushing about the energy Butler’s certain to bring to the entire defense.
“I like it,” hulking defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said of Butler’s hire. “He’s a great guy, great coach. He comes in all the time real energetic.”
In his new, more respected job as coordinator of an entire defense, Butler promises to tone down his antics some.
“As your roles change, as you grow as a coach and a person,” said Butler, who replaces the departed Ted Roof as the Lions’ defensive boss, “you’ve got to make sure who you are and what you’re about enables you to do the best professional job in your certain role. Obviously, my role’s a little bit different now — it’s a bigger position because there are more people to keep an eye on. There’s a big part of you that regains composure and poise.”
Players say Butler’s been back-slapping and leaping with glee over good plays since his first practice as defensive coordinator.
“Oh yeah,” Amos grinned, “he’s been even more animated over everything. He’s probably one of the most animated coaches out there.”
The fire really burns when Butler sees a bad play, or bad decision by his defense.
“He’s never going to lose his edge, man,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “I feel like he came out of the womb with that edge.”
So much for composure and poise.
“I’m going to be who I am,” Butler shrugged.
But whether or not he’s wearing his emotions on his sleeves, Butler is poised to make an impact on Penn State’s defense.
It’s started already.
In this age of lost scholarships and less talent due to NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State over the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Butler is working the team’s setup like pieces on a chess board.
Defensive backs will become linebackers at times. Linebackers will sometimes bolster the defensive line. Defensive linemen will drop into pass coverage.
All in the name of versatility.
“The more a player can do in our system,” Butler said, “the more we are going to move them to win games.”
It’s called winning the battle of attrition.
“Offenses, right now, are very, very hard to stop,” Butler said. “The game is directed to allowing offenses to do things. Everything nowadays is the speed, the speed of the game. We’ve got to get players on the field who are fast, too.
“We’re really trying to identify those guys who can play multiple roles.”
He’s already found a couple defensive players who can jump from one position to the next, including Amos and Obeng-Agyapong — who have the ability to switch from the secondary to linebacker every now and then. By the end of training camp, Obeng-Agyapong was the one who had spent reps in practice with the linebackers, according to players.
“Great teams have a lot of versatile players,” Amos said. “That’s what creates depth. If a safety can play linebacker, that makes linebacker depth a little deeper.”
Penn State didn’t have to dig real deep to find an ideal replacement when Roof left the program to become defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, after one season with the Nittany Lions.
Butler, a Pennsylvania native from Oreland, spent 20 years as an assistant for eight different college programs at various levels after graduating from Catholic University in 1994. He then wowed the Lions with his work in the secondary last season.
He took a defensive backfield that graduated all four starters in 2011 and made sure it more than held its own, turning Amos and Stephon Morris into All-Big Ten honorable mention selections in the process.
“He’s done an excellent job,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said, noting the battles between O’Brien’s offense and Butler’s defense are often intense on the practice field. “He and I are very competitive people. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. He’s a quick-minded guy, he’s tough. He’s an excellent coach with, really, a very bright future.”
He also knows the defensive system Roof put in place last year. Butler worked as a linebackers coach when Roof was the defensive coordinator for Minnesota’s Insight Bowl team of 2008.
That familiarity was important to Penn State’s returning defensive players, who would rather build on their success during last year’s 8-4 finish instead of changing the scheme drastically.
“Slightly,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “But you can’t even tell the difference, a few tweaks here and there. The way we run the defense, we run in terms of concepts. It’s pretty easy in that sense. It’s good for the team.”
It’ll be even better in the coming years, Butler suggests, when Penn State’s able to find more defensive players who can pounce around from one position to the next.
“We need guys who can think and adapt and do certain things,” Butler said. “There are certain things we look for in recruits, guys who can understand coverages. In football, they do stuff we’re not prepared for and you need to have answers. We’re not going to run a system that’s very basic. We need kids who can think like us and adapt within a game.”
Now that’s something a coach can really get excited about.