UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The good news for the Penn State secondary this spring is that at least a few of them have been there before. They've given up the long passes and failed on the third downs, and then learned and improved.
A group that struggled at the beginning of last season doesn't have to start from scratch this spring. Returning contributors such as safeties Malcolm Willis and Jordan Lucas, and cornerbacks Adrian Amos, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Da'Quan Davis, will seek to thrive under a new secondary coach in Anthony Midget while hoping younger players can add depth.
"Our core group is experienced," Willis said. "We still have a lot of young guys that have to get ready to go.
"We're worried about now. We've been emphasizing being ball hawks and making more plays on the ball."
Perhaps the greatest improvement from last season came in the passing defense. Penn State gave up 587 passing yards the first two games. Worse, the Nittany Lions allowed long passes on third downs, errors that led to second-half breakdowns in losses to Ohio and Virginia.
From then on, Penn State allowed an average of 211.3 yards per game. Third-down defense improved vastly, middling out to about 37 percent. By the end of the year, the secondary was thriving in games where the rushing defense struggled.
Amos, a junior, is the most talented of the group. Then-secondary coach John Butler last year compared him to a Southeastern-style cornerback. He finished with 44 tackles and two interceptions. Willis had 45 tackles last year, but he missed the final two games of the season with injury. Obeng-Agyapong started most of the season before a shoulder injury limited his playing time. He's playing on a no-contact basis this spring.
Though experience abounds, depth does not. In 2012, Butler said he had six players he generally liked to use and would have preferred to redshirt freshmen Lucas and Davis.
Having five experienced players returning means new defensive backs will have to back them up. This spring, freshman cornerbacks Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith enrolled early, and coach Bill O'Brien said they would have an opportunity to "fit in." Willis said former walk-ons Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser also were seeing action, along with redshirt freshman Malik Golden, who played wide receiver last season.
With Obeng-Agyapong's limited action and the newcomers needing to get reps, Willis said that the pace has been somewhat slow so far this spring, with Butler and Midget making sure everyone knows the formations and structure before ramping up the intensity.
"There are a lot of younger guys who have to step up and learn the position," Willis said.
Offensive tackle Adam Gress said Garry Gilliam had been limited in spring practice so far. Gilliam made the switch from tight end to tackle this spring. He was scheduled to be available for interviews, but was not made available.
Offensive guard John Urschel said Penn State has yet to practice outside so far this spring. Snow and temperatures that have been lucky to reach the upper-30s in the past week have forced them to practice indoors at Holuba Hall.
"I'm perfectly content being inside," Urschel said. "I played in enough snow in my Buffalo days."
Deion Barnes vs. Adam Gress
One of the more intriguing matchups this spring pits offensive tackle Adam Gress against sophomore defensive end Deion Barnes. Gress is trying to settle into a starting role, primarily at right tackle. His mission in practice so far will certainly help him, as he tries to stop returning Big Ten Conference newcomer of the year Barnes.
"He's unreal, one of the best defensive ends I've played against, not just here but against other teams," Gress said. "He's made great progress from last season already, and I think he's only going to go up from there."
Mark Dent: email@example.com and Twitter: @mdent05.