Malcolm Willis is a leader, but not necessarily a starter.
A fifth-year senior at Penn State, he has found himself locked in competition with Ryan Keiser for one of the safety spots heading into Saturday's opener against Syracuse in the New Jersey Meadowlands. On the latest depth chart, they are listed as co-No. 1s.
That is reflected on the practice field as well; Willis said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday that he and Keiser have been splitting reps with the first team, and believed the coaches would settle on a starter no later than Wednesday.
While the players might learn of it then, coach Bill O'Brien has adopted the same stance with that position as he has with quarterback.
You'll find out Saturday who starts, O'Brien said during his conference call Tuesday afternoon.
May the best man win, Willis said.
At the same time, he added, Who starts the game doesn't matter, because both are going to play a lot.
Willis started the first 10 games last year, making 45 tackles, then missed the last two with a knee problem. Keiser, who to this point in his career has been known more for the fact that he holds on placements, began to emerge in the defensive backfield toward the end of 2012, and in Willis' estimation has continued to progress.
He's one of those guys who's always willing to learn, Willis said. He's always asking questions. He's a heck of an athlete. He can make plays.
(Perhaps that's not an accident. Growing up in Selinsgrove, Pa., Keiser had a willing mentor in Neal Smith, a family friend who in 1969 established a Nittany Lions single-season record for interceptions with 10 -- a record equaled nine years later by Pete Harris -- and still holds the career mark of 19.)
O'Brien called Keiser an unsung hero, since he fills so many roles for the Lions.
He's an improved football player, the coach said. It was a great day last year when we were able to put him on scholarship, because he really deserved it.
As for Willis, he has two interceptions in his college career -- none last year, when he often left the field in obvious passing situations. But he is more than willing to contribute in other ways, saying in particular that he relishes his leadership role.
I take pride in it, and it's definitely an honor, he said. As far as being a leader, it comes easy because I've been here so long. I've formed a bond with a lot of the guys on the team.
He is part of a revamped secondary, one that is deeper than a year ago and one that features two new starting cornerbacks in Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams, the latter of whom is a converted wide receiver.
Those two, Willis said, are miles ahead of where they were in the spring.
They're going to make a lot of plays for us, he said.
Adrian Amos, a starting corner last year and one of the best players on the team, will play safety and probably a little linebacker. Veterans Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Jesse Della Valle are also in the picture at safety, and freshmen Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith figure to see some action at corner. So too does sophomore Da'Quan Davis, who got his feet wet last year.
Everybody wants to play as much as they can, Willis said, but at the end of the day the coaching staff feels everybody can produce at a high level. When you have a lot of guys who can do that, you have no choice but to play those guys.
The upside is that a guy can go 120 percent, then give way to another guy who can do the same.
It's all for the better, he said.
Willis said that while some of his classmates grew nostalgic at the end of preseason camp, he was not one of them. He doesn't believe that will happen until Senior Day.
Rather, he is focused on the task at hand.
We're definitely light years ahead of where we were last year as a team, he said.
They will have to be, since the defense doesn't know exactly what it is going to get from a Syracuse squad that has yet to settle on a quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Terrel Hunt and Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen are the candidates.
We have to be ready for anything, Willis said.
O'Brien called such uncertainty a little nerve-wracking.
You have to make sure you cover your bases as best you can, he said.
Especially the two new corners.
Everybody's going to get nervous, Willis said. I tell them I get nervous. If you don't get nervous, something's wrong in your head.
As long as they're focused and zoned in on their assignments, they'll be fine.
Him, too -- no matter what role he is asked to fill.