Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, right, comes up to defend Virginia's Jake McGee earlier this season.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Even at home, some of Penn State's defensive backs are working together. They can't help it.
Safety Malcolm Willis, cornerback Stephon Morris and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong share an apartment, along with wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder, and their computer screens are often displaying football film. They try to get as much of an extra edge in studying the tapes, as much of an opportunity to improve, as they can.
"We can all relate to each other and help each other with studying and the tendencies we see," Willis said.
Penn State's most inexperienced, most criticized and most exploited part of the team early in the season has turned into a reliable group in Big Ten Conference play. Penn State has allowed 203 passing yards and only one touchdown per game in six Big Ten games.
"You can't say enough about the players in that position," coach Bill O'Brien said.
From the beginning, the secondary was designated the biggest question mark on a Penn State team that wasn't exactly brimming with answers. O'Brien admitted the position lacked depth, and he was not kidding.
Defensive backs coach John Butler described his plight later in the season, on an off week, saying he had about seven guys to work with, including freshmen Da'Quan Davis and Jordan Lucas. He would have preferred to redshirt them. But he has been pleased with their progress.
"I think it's a steady group and, knock on wood, a healthy group," Butler said.
We'll get to the success of the knocking on wood gesture in a minute. For now, the progress.
It was a rough start for the secondary. Penn State allowed 324 passing yards and two touchdowns against Ohio. Against Virginia, it allowed 263 yards and two touchdowns.
A closer look at the statistics revealed an even darker image. Opponents were averaging nearly 8 yards per attempt. On third downs, they were doing whatever they wanted -- Virginia completed second-half passes of 23, 24 and 44 yards.
Morris spoke out the next week, saying that the defense's problems stemmed from the secondary. From then on, those problems began to fade. Even in Penn State's two losses since the first two games, the passing defense has been solid, giving up 143 yards to Ohio State and 171 to Nebraska. Purdue and Illinois have had the most success against Penn State in Big Ten play, throwing for 288 and 292 yards, but most of those came with the games no longer in doubt.
Willis said the secondary's improvement can be traced to better open-field tackling and performing better in practice drills that train them how to break up passes. O'Brien also gave Butler credit for helping the group to mature.
"Anybody that's been to our practices and watches John coach those guys with detail and intensity, and he's a teacher, you know, he accepts nothing less than their best," O'Brien said.
As much as Butler tried not to jinx his players' health a month ago, it didn't quite work. The secondary hasn't been decimated by injuries but hasn't exactly stayed healthy. Obeng-Agyapong has played through a shoulder injury for much of the season and requires treatment two days each week. Willis hurt his knee against Nebraska and is listed as day-to-day for the Indiana game.
But with them missing some plays, safety Jake Fagnano took on a larger role, and little has changed. The secondary still is on a mission to prove its worth, whether on the field or in the apartment.
"We just have to come out and play every game, regardless of what everybody says about us being young or inexperienced," Willis said. "If the coach didn't have confidence in us we wouldn't be on the field."