Penn State Football: After Quarterback, Young Cornerbacks are Secondary Starters
Penn State’s newest starting quarterback – let’s take a guess that it's Christian Hackenberg – is and will be getting a lot of the pub in 2013.
But don’t pass over fellow rookies Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams.
And that’s literally pass over -- as in deep outs thrown by Syracuse’s quarterback, whoever that is; with its own QB duel, the Orange’s starter will be green, too.
Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien hopes that won’t be the case. Lucas and Williams, both sophomores who played other positions in 2012, are expected to start at the two corners in the season opener next Saturday.
They certainly haven't cornered the market on publicity. While the two are a fifth of the starting Nittany Lions' defense, they've received one-fifth of 1% of the media attention heaped on Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson. Until now.
“Jordan and Trevor are doing well,” O’Brien said yesterday. “They’ve had both productive training camps. They’ve gotten their hands on a lot of balls. They’ve tackled well, they’ve communicated well and they’ve played well in zone coverage and man coverage.”
And while Lucas and Williams comprise one-third of the Nittany Lions who played as true freshmen last season (two out of six, for those of you who can’t do such Urschelian math), neither brings much experience to the position. Williams played wide receiver, grabbing 10 passes for 97 yards, in 11 games. And Lucas appeared mainly on special teams and played “about 12 or 13 plays” in the secondary, he says.
They are replacing the tandem of Adrian Amos, who moved to safety this season, and Stephon Morris, who graduated. O’Brien and new defensive coordinator John Butler are hoping their presence can ramp up PSU’s pass defense. The Nittany Lions’ success against the pass fell off in 2012 from the Tom Bradley-led group of 2011, dropping from No. 6 to 28th nationally in pass efficiency, and from No. 17 to 50th in overall pass defense.
The move of Amos to safety, where there is already a wealth of experience, shows the faith O‘Brien and Butler have in the two young cornerbacks. Along with Amos, a 6-foot, 190-pound junior who is arguably the team’s top defender, also at safety are fellow projected starter Ryan Keiser (junior, 6-1, 205) and veteran duo Malcolm Willis (senior, 5-11, 219) and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (senior, 5-10, 205). Together, Willis and Obeng-Agyapong had 22 starts at safety in 2012. Overall, the quartet at safety is a veteran group, with a combined 42 starts and nine letters.
What Lucas and Williams lack in experience, they make up in size and athletic ability. Lucas is 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds, up 13 pounds from last season and down to 5% body fat. Williams is 6-1 and 189 pounds, and is one of the faster players on the team.
O’Brien: “They’re both bigger, athletic guys.”
Amos: “They’re long, athletic, aggressive players. They fit right along in with our defense; they’ve improved a lot. They’re getting it done. Now we have a big secondary. Everybody is 6 foot or over and close to 200 pounds. We have the athleticism in the secondary this year, we just need to execute.”
Keiser: “Oh yeah, they’re great athletes. They’re out there competing every day, getting better. They’re both strong guys, big guys. They can run, play coverage.”
ODD COUPLE AND/OR BROTHERS?
In some ways, it is an odd couple. Lucas is a classic extrovert, with an engaging personality that transcends the playing field. He hails from New Rochelle, one of five New Yorkers on the roster. Lucas was at safety last season, and after a strong start hit a lull, only to recover with a growth spurt of improvement by season’s end.
Williams, who possesses a quieter confidence, is one of three players from the same high school. Williams, Amos and Da’Quan Davis (also a sophomore cornerback) went to Baltimore’s DB U. -- Calvert Hill College High School. As a Penn State freshman in 2012, Williams ranked No. 3 in receptions among wide receivers and began spring practice on offense. But five practices and a one-on-one meeting with O’Brien in, he made the switch to defense.
“Coach O’Brien brought me into his office and said he wanted to get me on the field a little bit more,” Williams said. “He asked me what I would feel more comfortable doing. And I told him I will try whatever is best for the team. It started out being hard at first since I really wasn’t used to playing corner. With a lot of film study and practice I started feeling better. The first couple of days were shaky; I had to polish up my technique. By the spring game, I started feeling more comfortable playing the position.”
A summer of texting, route-running and man-on-man coverage honed his skills, as well as those of Lucas. The two met several nights a week to work out together during the summer, confirming their “dates” at the Lasch practice fields with constant messaging back and forth.
Lucas says that helped immeasurably. “We’re both in the same class, we went through the same thing last year as freshmen,” he said. “We work together all the time. This summer we put in a lot of work – doing footwork drills and going at each other. He’d play wide receiver and I’ll cover him. Then I’d play wide receiver. We’d just try to beat each other.”
Williams concurred. “Jordan is like a brother to me. We both wanted to see each other do great,” he said. “Coming from wide receiver, I can give him some tips and he can help me with transitions and getting out of my breaks and stuff.”
No matter how talented Lucas and Williams are or how much work they put in, elder statesman Amos knows one thing for sure: they’ll get beat.
“Bad stuff will happen,” Amos said with a bit of a smile. “They just need to rebound. That’s the biggest thing. No one on any level has gone without getting beat. You need to come back and retaliate.”
O’Brien, too, knows that there’s no assurance – or insurance -- there won’t be a casualty or two during the pair’s first start in MetLife. “I’m sure when they go out there for the first time it’ll be a little nerve-racking, but it is for any first-time starter,” O’Brien said. “That’s a tough position, but these guys are good players.”
Lucas believes O’Brien. Because he believes in himself. And in Williams.
“In our heads, we’re veterans,” Lucas said. “We have to come in and be ready to play. We can’t play like true sophomores. We’re going to play like veterans.”