Penn State Football: Starting linemen ready for 4-3 defense, but the backups are young
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Defensive tackle Jay Alford (13) was in the middle of the action last year. But this season his task is even tougher, as a leader of a young group of defensive linemen at Penn State.
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The 4-3 defense is going to remain Penn State's base defense, which means the coaching staff has found four players capable of standing up to the competition that awaits them.
The bigger concern beyond the starting four is the backups. Penn State traditionally has substituted linemen in and out of the game to keep players fresh. Finding a few reserves capable of filling backup roles continues to be a challenge.
The four starters, barring any unforeseen changes this week, will be seniors Jay Alford and Eddie Johnson at the tackle positions and Josh Gaines and Jim Shaw at the defensive end positions.
Alford (6 feet 3, 288 pounds) is the leader of the group. He was voted second-team all-Big Ten after recording 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. He is the Big Ten's returning sack leader and is among the top tackles in the country.
After Alford, however, there is little experience. Johnson missed last season for disciplinary reasons and will be playing for the first time in almost two years. Johnson started three games as a junior and three as a sophomore and could be a steady force in the middle of the line if he can pick up where he left off.
At the ends, Gaines, a 6-1, 263-pound sophomore, and Shaw, a 6-3, 264-pound senior, will start for the first time against Akron on Saturday. Gaines was usually the first reserve off the bench last season. He played in every game and had nine tackles. Shaw had six tackles and a sack, the sack coming against Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
"I think we have fine defensive linemen," Paterno said. "A couple of them haven't played a lot. I think we're in pretty good shape, really. Whether we have enough people behind them, that will have to play out."
A few of the reserves could be true freshmen. Defensive end Maurice Evans and tackle Jared Odrick were two of the top 50 high school players in the country last year.
"We're trying to find some kids who can handle this game physically and mentally," defensive line coach Larry Johnson said of his young group of linemen.
"That's the biggest thing. And we're trying to find players who have the ability to play at full speed and run to the football. That will make up for a lot of things that don't happen. That's the approach.
"We've been in this position before. We were here four years ago. People were saying the same things about Matt Rice, Tamba Hali and Scott Paxson. They were saying we weren't very good. I was letting those guys grow, and they became really good down the stretch. I'm at that same junction again. I think the difference is we have some very young talented kids. We have some kids who are going to be very close to helping us out."
Paterno seemed less enthralled about the young players being able to help the defense out soon. "As young people, they're fine," he said.
"They're good, young prospects. But this isn't high school. And it isn't going to be high school starting against Akron. They got a long way to go."
Rice, Hali and Paxson took their lumps as younger players, but it helped in their growing process. Larry Johnson must make the determination whether they can stand up and take the physical pounding.
"The physical stuff and skill are there," Larry Johnson said. "But when you're 17 years old going against a 20-year-old man there's a difference. That's the level we have to get them to. If they can handle that part -- the physical part -- then we've got a pretty good shot."
Alford said he and the other seniors must help the freshmen make the transition because they will be the ones who will benefit. If the depth is not there, the starters will be forced to play the majority of the snaps.
"It's difficult making that transfer from high school to college because it's so much faster," Alford said. "The thing was I didn't have anyone passing it on to me, to let me know what was going to make things a little easier. That's what I'm trying to do, to be that bridge, to try and push them along."
Alford added: "I'm definitely encouraged. They're big and they're talented. They're athletes. It's amazing just to watch them play ball at this early stage. Give them a couple of years and I think they'll be better than us."
That might be true, but right now, Paterno would settle for a couple of capable backups.
"I'm trying to ... be that bridge, to try and push them along."
First Published August 27, 2006 12:00 am