Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Penn State's success with the Spread HD offense got most of the attention last season, but it was the Nittany Lions defense that secured the team's second Big Ten championship in four years. Led by a dominant front four, Penn State finished the season ranked eighth nationally in total defense (280.1 ypg), scoring defense (14.4 ppg) and rushing defense (93.2 ypg). It held Ohio State to its lowest points total at home since 1982 and allowed 14 points or fewer in eight games. But things ended on a sour note, as USC and quarterback Mark Sanchez carved up Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
The Lions bring back several standouts from last year's unit as well as linebacker Sean Lee, who returns from a torn ACL that cost him the 2008 season. But there are several holes to fill, especially in the secondary. I recently caught up with longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to discuss the issues facing the Penn State defense heading into the fall.
Generally, how did you feel about the defense coming out of spring practice?
Tom Bradley: Holy smokes, we're playing like UFO coverages back there. We don't know what we're playing, they don't know what we're playing (laughs). I thought we came out OK. We stuck pretty much to the fundamentals. We didn't get carried away with the scheme. Coach [Joe Paterno] likes to have spring practice be basic fundamentals, so we kept it pretty basic.
When you have a lot of new guys in the secondary and up front, is the scheme something you build in later this summer, as you get closer to the season, or do you have to shape it around the different personnel?
TB: We've never been married to a scheme. We're married to people. So we're going to adjust our scheme to the people we have. We hate to ask them to do things that look good on paper but they can't do well. We're trying to figure out our best 11 guys, and then we'll tailor the scheme from there. We didn't have Sean [Lee] for any contact during the spring, Jerome Hayes is coming back off an injury. They're key for us. Once we see how they are, we can kind of move the scheme from there.
Did you get a sense about some of the young guys, where they could fit in or how you can use them?
TB: Our basic stuff that we've been doing and worked on in the spring, they understood it. They got better at it. The younger guys, getting exposed in the fall is going to be key. Obviously, we've got some young kids in the secondary coming in that we're going to have to count on for depth. It's going to be an interesting preseason, especially on defense. We were aware that [defensive ends Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans] would go [to the NFL], but we never felt that both of them would go. We're going to be patchy at a couple positions.
A lot of Penn State fans tell me not to worry about the D-line, that you always find someone. As a coach, do you feel OK overall about that group with both Aaron and Maurice gone?
TB: We'll have some question marks until some of them get some experience. We just don't have a lot of guys with game experience. You'd like to have a little bit of depth there, but we just don't have it at a couple positions. So it's going to have to develop quickly. And we may have to have some guys move positions. We've done that in the past.
I know Aaron was a smaller defensive end. Are you comfortable having another guy his size maybe move down there, given how successful he was?
TB: We really don't say, 'This guy has to be this tall and this big.' We don't worry about that. We're going to take a guy who can play. We had Timmy Shaw, who was a linebacker, playing there one year. We moved him around. Once we try to figure out who our best guys are, we'll kind of get going from there.
Jack Crawford is a guy a lot of people are very excited about. Are you surprised at how quick he has picked up the game since he didn't grow up playing it?
TB: One of the impressive things about him, after the Blue-White Game, I had a bunch of people up and they wanted to go down to see the locker room. They had their kids and everything. I went in there. I'll bet you it was nine o'clock after the Blue-White Game, and I opened up the team room to show them the team room and [Crawford] was in there looking at the Blue-White Game. So you see that and you start to say, 'Geez, that's a good start right there. A kid that really cares.' Most guys, after the Blue-White Game, they're out having fun or with their family or whatever, but he was down there looking at the film. He's a dedicated guy. He's a good-looking, physical-type football player. He's got a lot of good tools. And the other thing I really like about Jack is he's got a motor. He wants to play. He's got those intangibles.