UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Even when you saw the personnel grouping in the secondary at the start of the Ohio State game and knew what you were seeing was real, it was hard to believe.
Jesse Della Valle, a punt-returner who had played sparingly in the secondary throughout his career and had been labeled a fourth-stringer on the depth chart, was starting at safety. At cornerback was Adrian Amos, an accomplished corner, yes, but one who had played nearly the entire season as a safety.
The new look was a sign of what had happened the past few weeks: Penn State's secondary has been in flux. From injuries (safety Ryan Keiser) to growing pains at new positions (Amos and Trevor Williams), little has been consistent, except for Jordan Lucas, a sophomore cornerback and the only defensive back to start every game at the same position this season.
"Jordan Lucas is one of the better football players on our team," coach Bill O'Brien said.
When safety Malcolm Willis thinks about Lucas, he thinks about someone who is intelligent and athletic, someone who possesses maturity. Though Lucas is a sophomore, he has had more time to develop than many players his age. He spent a year in prep school at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts after receiving scant interest from Division I-A schools following his senior year at New Rochelle High School in New York.
At Penn State, he was thrust into his role early. Those who transferred freely in 2012 didn't deplete the Nittany Lions' roster badly as a whole, but the secondary lost three contributors in Derek Thomas, Tim Buckley and Curtis Drake.
John Butler, then the defensive backs coach but now the defensive coordinator, acknowledged he would have liked to redshirt then-freshmen Lucas and Da'Quan Davis. Instead, Lucas contributed on special teams and sparingly backed up Amos and Stephon Morris, playing in all 12 games.
From the start of preseason camp, Lucas' role increased this season.
He and Williams would be expected to solidify a pass defense that had its ups and downs last year and finished eighth in the league. In seven games, Lucas leads the secondary in tackles (39), pass breakups (7) and passes defended (8). He has been beaten a few times -- the game against Central Florida, in particular. But, in that same game Lucas had a tackle at about the 5 that saved a touchdown, forced a fumble and finished tied for the team lead in tackles.
Throughout the season, Lucas said he has been working on using his leverage better in pass defense and focusing more on the receiver's hands as the pass is thrown. Willis said Lucas is one of the most curious players on the team. He's repeatedly asking the coaches questions and asks Willis for advice when they watch film.
"He's been very consistent," Willis said. "That's a testament to him and his preparation."
He also has become a leader among the younger players. Lucas was one of few players to address the media after a 63-14 loss to Ohio State. He takes his role seriously and, after the Ohio State game already was spreading a positive message he wanted everyone on the team to embrace: F.I.D.O. It stands for forget it, drive on.
"We just need to keep that going because things are going to happen during the game," Lucas said. "You can't put your head down and quit."
O'Brien said Lucas has done a good job this year of understanding routes and acting on the ball. He said Lucas could even play safety later in his career -- a career that O'Brien sees as only positive.
"He'll get better and better and better because he works extremely hard," O'Brien said.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.