QUESTION: TACKLE ED JOHNSON WILL MISS THE ENTIRE 2005 SEASON WHILE SERVING A UNIVERSITY-IMPOSED EXPULSION. WHAT IMPACT WILL THAT HAVE ON PENN STATE’S DEFENSIVE LINE?
HARRINGTON: No doubt about it, losing Johnson is a blow to the defense. However, I don’t see it resulting in any major shifts in personnel. I would suspect that the likely suspect, A.Q. Shipley, stays at center given that defensive line coach Larry Johnson presumably has Scott Paxson back this fall and Elijah Robinson in the wings. Robinson has had an outstanding off-season thus far. As interesting as it may sound, as we reported this spring, a few other “unknowns” have made some impressions on the staff like Blase Iorio and Tommy Schnell. Plus with Mike Lucian making the shift to tackle this off-season the line should have enough depth without Johnson, although he was displaying some impressive potential.
BRENNAN: There has been plenty of talk about Shipley moving from center back to defensive tackle, but I can’t see that happening. The offensive line needs his aggressive attitude. Over on defense, the key now that Johnson is gone is getting Paxson back in the mix. Paxson missed most of spring practice for being a knucklehead. But he’s a solid one-technique* tackle, albeit without the sheer bulk (or run-stopping ability) of Johnson, and he started every game in 2004. Jay Alford (listen to him here) is the three-technique* who, after starting eight games last season, came on like gangbusters in the spring, winning the O’Hora Award. Losing Johnson is going to have an impact when it comes to experienced depth. He logged 405 snaps last fall, third at DT only to Paxson (506) and Alford (462).
*What does this stuff mean? This link explains it as well as anything we’ve seen.
HARRINGTON: I think you touch on something that goes to the heart of losing Johnson: Namely, his ability to serve as a disrupting force on the line. Johnson is explosive off the line and among the best bull-rushers the Lions have seen in recent history, with a technique that emulated Anthony Adams. I see the loss less as a depth concern given the emergence of guys like Robinson (though depth is always a concern in the Big Ten) and more of an issue of losing sheer talent and ability to build the penetration abilities of the line. As you said, Paxson better strap on his helmet, buckle down and get serious about his role on this defense.
BRENNAN: I’ll disagree that depth at DT is not a primary concern for the defense right now. E-Rob had one tackle last season, Lucian has yet to log a college snap and the walk-ons you mention didn’t wow me in the spring. With all of that said, the coaching staff went through the entire session without Johnson, must have known he would probably not be back in the fall and I’m sure adjusted accordingly (even without Shipley and John Shaw). When we talk about concerns, it is very much a relative concept. Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they are loaded everywhere else on defense, so they’ll do well even without Johnson.
HARRINGTON’S LAST WORD: Robinson is young, but the sophomore tackle ran with the first team all spring in Paxson’s absence. Granted, he doesn’t deserve to be anointed ready based on that, but he has been learning the position from Alford. All reports out of practice point to Robinson having promise as a solid player, but Larry Johnson typically likes to rotate four defensive tackles during the course of a game in order to keep everyone fresh. That scheme would have Alford, Paxson, Robinson and … well, that is the big issue. Steve Roach, Lucian, Schnell and Iorio all have size with inexperience. Fortunately, Johnson’s scheme and personnel give one or more of these guys an opportunity to get experience with a rotation approach. Ironically, the situation depends on Paxson and E.Z. Smith. If the situation at DT turns dire and Smith returns, we could see Shipley back to defense. I assumed Paxson’s return in all of this, but I guess assuming anything at this point would be a mistake.
BRENNAN’S LAST WORD: The bottom line here: Don’t expect any serious personnel changes. And do expect the better opponents on Penn State’s schedule to challenge the Nittany Lions on the ground. They probably would do that even if Johnson played. Now that depth is a concern at DT, it is a certainty.