UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Pete Massaro's name has been on Penn State's injury list the past three games, the prognosis bouncing from possible to out to possible for Saturday. Sean Stanley missed the Temple game because of an ailing back.
Their injuries could have thrown the defensive-end position into disarray. Next in line, according to the depth chart, were two players who had three tackles between them coming into this year: sophomore C.J. Olaniyan and redshirt freshman Deion Barnes. Olaniyan now has eight tackles and ties for the team lead with two pass break-ups. Barnes has nine tackles, a team-high four tackles for losses and three sacks and was named Big Ten Conference freshman of the week for his performance against Navy.
"I know that young guys are in there, the potential that they have, and they're really stepping up to the plate early in their careers," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "As an older guy, it's really encouraging for the defensive line."
Olaniyan flashed the makings of a player ready to break out in the spring. He had three sacks in the Blue-White game, a development that helped him believe he would be ready for this season. Barnes entered fall camp with little fanfare, considered a co-backup to Massaro with fellow redshirt freshman Anthony Zettel. After camp, he was considered the co-starter with Massaro.
Massaro had not played since 2010, missing last year with a knee injury. Problems with that knee, as well as a shoulder injury sustained against Virginia, have limited him to minimal action in two games this season.
Barnes demonstrated his readiness in that Virginia game. He had two sacks and a forced fumble. He followed it up with another sack and forced fumble against Navy.
"If you've coached in the National Football League and you know what a good pass rusher looks like, like a Tamba Hali, like a DeMarcus Ware, I'm not saying he is there yet," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said of Barnes. "But the way he gets off the football, he uses his hands, the way he gets off the edge, the way he understands where the quarterback sets up and the way he tries to strip the ball shows his potential."
Olaniyan got his opportunity against Temple. With Stanley out, he made his first start.
At the training table before the game, teammates could see he was tense and quiet. Olaniyan said he didn't change his pregame routine - he only hydrated more, knowing he would be on the field longer than he ever had.
With benefit of an entire game, Olaniyan turned in his best career performance. He finished with four tackles and a blocked pass.
Barnes credited much of his and Olaniyan's progress to Massaro and Stanley. The two seniors routinely answer questions from the younger players. Sometimes, Barnes gets critiques from Stanley after a live play in a game.
Olaniyan and Barnes also learn from each other. They worked together in the offseason and discuss strategy in meeting rooms. On weekends this fall, they have watched NFL games together.
Olaniyan teases Barnes about his love for the Philadelphia Eagles and Barnes does the same to Olaniyan for his love of the Denver Broncos. Sometimes, they make bets on games. The loser has to carry the other's playbook to meetings.
Saturday, Stanley is considered probable for the game against Illinois. Massaro likely won't play. Barnes and Olaniyan should continue to play and further reinforce the defensive line's belief in them.
"It really hasn't been a dramatic drop-off because they've played well," Hill said. "They're stepping into the roles well."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mdent05.