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Position Profile: Defensive Line

Submitted by on September 3, 2010No Comment

With less than two weeks until Penn State takes on Youngstown State, the mixing and matching of the spring and summer is starting to die down. The starting lineup and rotation is mostly set, and we’re taking a look as just how each position stacks up. We continue with a look at Penn State’s defensive line, which loses its best player, but promises to reload under the tutelage of Larry Johnson.

Last year: Jared Odrick was the only defensive lineman to start all 13 games, and he led the unit with 43 tackles and 7 sacks. Jack Crawford added 14.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. Eric Latimore’s 3.5 sacks ranked third. Ollie Ogbu started 12 games and made 8 tackles for a loss.

Key losses: Jared Odrick graduated and was drafted in the first round by the Miami Dolphins. Also graduating was Jerome Hayes.

Overview: Heading into the 2009 season, there were some serious questions surrounding the Penn State defensive line. All three of the top defensive ends from the year before–Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans, and Josh Gaines–had left the program, either graduating or declaring early for the NFL draft.  Jack Crawford had incredible potential, but he was still a raw Brit who’d only been playing the game for a few years. Ollie Ogbu was a solid enough player, but at nose-tackle, not the dynamic playmaker Penn State needed.

Ah, but there was Jared Odrick, and as it turned out, his 2008 all-Big Ten campaign was only the warm-up for a truly phenomenal senior season.  Odrick was a disruptive force last year, interrupting plays in the backfield and stopping running backs before they got started.  You often hear about a player’s motor, and I’m not sure I ever saw a defensive tackle chase so many players from behind as Odrick did in 2009.  He was the Big Ten defensive Player of the Year, and a AFCA all-American.

And though Penn State replaces starters at the other three positions on the offensive line, the loss of Jared Odrick leaves a giant question mark in the middle.

But if there’s one thing Larry Johnson has always done exceedingly well, it’s reload.  In the past decade, Penn State’s had 6 different defensive linemen named all-Americans, and so many of them have come out of nowhere to break out.  This year, the chief candidate to continue that grand tradition is Jack Crawford, who was enough of a monster before adding 15 pounds in the offseason.  I’m not sure there’s going to be a more terrifying sight than a 6-5, 270 pound athletic freak, a hairless Englishman without a pound of fat on his body.  Crawford’s a notorious hard-worker in the film room, too, and for someone who lacks the experience playing the game, that will certainly aid in his development.  But I see Crawford as stouter against the run than as a true pass-rusher, which requires a little more polish than pure athleticism.

Across from Crawford is the player I’m expecting to step up just as much. Eric Latimore was solid last year, splitting time with Jerome Hayes. Hayes was more of an edge rusher, while the larger Latimore stayed in during running downs.  But now it’ll be Latimore’s position to himself, and by all reports he enjoyed a fine spring.  During the Blue-White game he looked like Penn State’s best defensive lineman, consistently getting into the backfield.

Should Latimore struggle, though, it’s not like Penn State doesn’t have options.  Larry Johnson loves to have depth along his line, and you’ll see four players rotate through at defensive end, all getting significant playing time.  Sophomore Sean Stanley has had trouble getting his weight up, but looks like a pass rusher in the making.  He provided a nice spark off the edge when he played last year.  And Kevion Latham, who battled Hayes and Latimore for playing time last year, should get reps as well.

At defensive end, it’s a similar set of circumstances.  Ollie Ogbu was named a captain of this team, so he’s certainly gained the respect of his teammates.  Sooner rather than later, he’ll gain the appreciation of the fanbase, too.  Ogbu plays the one-technique, which isn’t flashy. His job is just to hold the line of scrimmage, eat up space, and occupy blockers, and he’s quite good at it.  Very stout at the point of attack, it’s tough to push Ogbu around.

The question will be whether Penn State can get production out of the three-technique, the kind of disruptive defensive tackle that Odrick was a year ago.  Devon Still, who’s battled injuries his first few years, has some huge shoes to fill.  But at 6-5, 311 and plenty athletic, Still might just be up for the task.  As Penn State’s chief reserve at the position last year, Still managed 2 sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss while playing sparingly, and is poised to break out in a big way with increased responsibilities.

Behind those two is sophomore Jordan Hill, who looked solid in a garbage-time role last year.  Given LJ’s propensity for rotating through his unit, Hill will be seeing Still-like playing time in 2010.  There’s also fan favorite Brandon Ware, who seems to have finally worked his way out of Joe Paterno’s doghouse.  His grades are up, his weight is down, and he’s poised to finally see the field in his third year at Penn State.  James Terry could also figure in, and so could freshmen DaQuan Jones and Evan Hailes.

Three Questions:

How good is Jack Crawford? I don’t think it’s just me. It really feels like Penn State fans are expecting huge things from Crawford, and that it just seems almost inevitable that he’ll live up to the hype.  But Crawford is a different sort of defensive end than Penn State is used to, not a smaller pass rusher, but a stout monster who won’t let anything past him.  That much is almost certain, but if the Nittany Lions are going to lean on Crawford to replace some of Odrick’s sacks, he’ll need to become a more complete end in 2010.,

Will we see some 3-4? Penn State has the perfect personnel to go with three down linemen if they should choose–Devon Still and Jack Crawford are prototypical 3-4 ends, and both Ogbu and Ware could hold down the middle.  Penn State’s got a glut of talented linebackers, and getting an extra one on the field and giving other teams a look they haven’t seen before could be a useful change of pace, especially in the tough road games where Penn State will need every advantage they can get.

Is this Larry Johnson’s last hurrah? Larry Johnson might be the best position coach in the country, and he’s also  Penn State’s best recruiter.  It should come as no surprise that other schools have looked to poach him away from State College.  It wasn’t too long ago that Joe Paterno was making promises to keep LJ here, but if Joe leaves after this season, you wonder whether Larry would be less committed to working under another coach, especially if Graham Spanier doesn’t give him a fair shot at the head coaching job.

Extra bonus question: Who leads the team in sacks?

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