UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State's rushing defense is expected to perform at a high level every season. Fact is, Penn State's rushing defense nearly always has been good.
Even when the offense stalls, even when the record slips below .500, the Nittany Lions have mostly stopped the run. They've stopped the run with veteran linebackers, future NFL stars and former walk-ons. This fall, though, will present a challenge. A team that couldn't stop the run against above-.500 Big Ten teams must replace three players adept at stopping the rush with a linebacker corps short on numbers and a defensive line short on experience.
"We're trying to play our type of football," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "We have new personnel. We can't try to emulate what we had last year. Everyone is different. We're just trying to get better."
Hard as it is to consider given Penn State's resurgent end to the 2012 season and the presence of Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill, Penn State didn't exactly excel stopping the run in Big Ten play. Mediocre teams couldn't run against Penn State, with Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and Indiana fitting snugly in that category. They combined for 205 yards. Penn State gave up just 24 to Indiana and 20 to Iowa.
The Nittany Lions had little trouble in those games. When they faced the Big Ten's best running teams, there was a different outcome. Northwestern, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin rushed for a total of 771 yards against them. Penn State, which gave up an average of 128.4 rushing yards per game, allowed more than its average in all those games except the one against Northwestern (112).
By Penn State standards, the 128.4 average was slightly worse than the mean of recent years. Since 2003, Penn State has allowed an average of 122.3 yards per game. The low mark of this subset came in 2003, when Penn State gave up 209.1 yards and finished 3-9. The high mark came in 2006, when Penn State gave up 87.5 yards and finished 9-4. After allowing fewer than 100 rushing yards per game each season from 2005-09, Penn State has given up 128 yards or more per game since.
The front seven will return three starters this fall: Carson, DaQuan Jones and Deion Barnes. Carson said the time spent learning the defensive system, which was new last year, already has benefited them. This spring, he said, they already know the sets and where they are supposed to be, allowing them to progress further.
Linebacker Mike Hull said they need to improve on not getting pushed from the point of attack, a problem that caused them major problems against Nebraska.
They've also been working out with their minds steered toward improvement against the rush. This offseason Barnes, Penn State's leader in sacks and the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2012, said he added about 5, 6 pounds of muscle and worked on his hand placement and technique with turning his hips in hopes of turning a weakness against the rush into a strength.
"Sometimes teams would run at me and send tight ends and tackles at me," Barnes said. "I don't want that to be a weakness to where people will say, 'Let's run at 18 because he's a pass rusher.' I think I'm doing a better job right now."
Carson, as much as he stressed a fresh start for this group, has noticed something similar to past Penn State defense that he thinks will bode well for its ability to stop rushing offenses. He sees this group as scrappy, ready to force turnovers.
"We've done a great job hustling to the ball and trying to strip the ball every time, trying to get the ball out and force the fumbles and make some plays," Carson said. "We love to fly around."
NOTES -- Tight end Kyle Carter said Wednesday his rehabilitation from a wrist injury suffered against Nebraska was ahead of schedule. Calling the injury a dislocated wrist with some torn ligaments, Carter said he still was not participating in contact drills but could play in a game now if he had to. ... Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong also has skipped contact drills this spring after postseason shoulder surgery. Obeng-Agyapong said he likely won't play in the Blue-White Game but expects to be healthy by summer.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mdent05.