Penn State Football: John Butler Takes Realistic View About the State of the Secondary
At times there is gamesmanship between coaches and the media. It’s referred to as winning the press conference and controlling the message, and it’s easy to eat up. Some actually makes sense. It has been written that attendance at Beaver Stadium is the lowest in years, and Bill O’Brien counters with 95,000 is still better than all but a handful of college venues across the country.
Excitement is budding around the Penn State football program after 11 months of little to cheer about. The team reached its bye week at 4-2 and unbeaten in the Big Ten, and the national love affair with this program can reach full bloom in a couple weeks if it plays out that Penn State can knock off an unbeaten Ohio State. No doubt that’s part of the recruiting pitch over the next few days when assistant coaches hit the road. Huge stadium, national TV, exceptional coaching staff, winning formula, cheers to that, right?
Secondary coach John Butler offers a dose of reality of what Penn State is facing the next several seasons. He may have the toughest job among the nine members of the coaching staff because his numbers are so thin, and scholarship reductions in conjunction with the NCAA sanctions make fertilizing the field more difficult.
Why doesn’t Penn State play nickel coverage? The closest thing to a traditional package shifts Adrian Amos to safety and has freshman cornerback Da’Quan Davis rotate in with linebacker Mike Hull.
“We’ll play nickel when we have nickel personnel,” Butler said.
“I know a lot of the readers out there are wondering why we don’t play nickel and I guess I’m wondering why I only have six [defensive backs] when I took the job here.”
Cornerback Stephon Morris and safety Jake Fagnano will both be lost next season because of graduation. Any player on the Penn State roster is free to transfer to any school from after the season until preseason practice and not have to sit out a year because the NCAA said so. Attrition could very well extend beyond the two seniors. If things are ugly now, dire would accurately label such a scenario.
The sanctions have reduced Penn State’s scholarships by 40 over the next four years and caps their total scholarship roster at 65 starting in 2014 and continuing through 2017. Penn State can take on 15 scholarship players in each of the next four recruiting classes, meaning the coaching staff has to identify prospects willing to accept there is no postseason to play for until 2016, extend offers in a manner that can balance an already unbalanced roster, particularly in the defensive backfield, and then maximize the talent of each player that comes in the program because there’s no longer room to misevaluate a recruit when depth is at a premium.
Butler was asked what kind of prospect he’s trying to identify. Ideally, the size is 5-foot-10 or bigger with great arm length to be able to get his hands on a receiver.
“You gotta have speed and you gotta have game speed,” Butler said. “You can’t be a track guy. You gotta have change of direction and you gotta have fooball instincts. You gotta have the natural ability and genetic makeup to wanna tackle and be physical.”
Penn State has verbal commitments from three defensive backs in the Class of 2013. None of those commitments are binding until a national letter of intent is signed in February. They fit Butler’s ideal height, but one is a three-star prospect, another two star, the third unranked at this time according to Rivals.com, which is dubbed as an expertise in such an inexact science. What Butler is looking for beyond measurements is an innate ability to make plays on the ball.
The reasoning behind such an evaluation standard? “That’s what you get paid to do,” Butler said.
Of course, Penn State doesn’t live in an ideal world. There would be no sanctions if that were the case, nor would it be located in the Northeast, where once upon a time, before a population shift to the Sun Belt, Joe Paterno could field a national championship team from his backyard. An SEC coach credited with changing college football in a preseason article run in Sports Illustrated prefers bigger cornerbacks who can judge the ball, play man coverage and tackle well. Penn State’s secondary has tackled well but has not recorded an interception all season, and Butler said a self-scout at the midway point of the season determined it’s best to stay in zone coverage.
“The problem with finding big corners is just like finding 6-foot-11 guys who can play on the wing and shoot jump shots in basketball,” Butler said. “There’s not a whole lot of them out there.
“Quite frankly, a guy like Adrian Amos is who we’re all looking for. Down south, a program in the SEC, there’s maybe two or three more in each area than there are up in our region. Finding a 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive back that can play corner and safety is what we’re all looking for, it’s just unfortunately, there’s not a ton of those guys out there.”
Those that are mostly reside in the south. Fifteen of the top 20 cornerback prospects in the Class of 2013, according to Rivals, are located south of or in North Carolina and the West. At safety, 14 of the top 20 prospects fall in the same regions. And, of the five defensive backs taken in the first round the 2012 NFL Draft, four played college football in the SEC. The fifth attended Notre Dame, a national brand.
Part of Butler’s plan moving forward in the face of the storm is to identify prospects that can play both cornerback and safety and have an affinity for contributing on special teams. Low numbers also contribute to whether or not redshirting is likely. In theory, Butler says, a fifth-year senior is more likely to produce at a higher level than a true freshman.
“Da’Quan Davis is the perfect example of a kid that if we were in a perfect scenario, which we’re very, very, very, very, very far from, he would probably be an ideal kid to redshirt," Butler said. "We’d like to put some more weight on him and just kind of season him a little bit.”
That’s the reality this unit and, by extension, this team faces moving forward. Nobody, especially Butler, will tell you otherwise even with the program on as high a note as it’s been in quite some time.