Column: Amos’ Move to Safety Proving Costly

Story posted October 11, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Bradford Conners

Coming into the 2013 season, the Penn State Nittany Lions had the luxury of returning three starting defensive backs from a year ago. Starting safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong were back in the fold, as was reigning honorable mention All-Big Ten cornerback Adrian Amos.

But rather than choosing to make this year’s secondary look 75% identical to the 2012 version, the Nittany Lions opted for an almost completely new look instead.

Amos was shifted from cornerback to safety, leaving two open spots at cornerback to be filled by a pair of inexperienced sophomores in Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams. Lucas had seen little playing time in his freshman year, and Williams had just converted from wide receiver to the defensive side of the ball.

Two games into the season, the overhaul in the secondary seemed to be working out just fine. Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen completed just 16 of his 37 pass attempts in Penn State’s opening week win, and Eastern Michigan signal caller Tyler Benz managed just 115 yards against the Nittany Lions in week two.

However, when Williams and Lucas were handed their first real challenge against Blake Bortles and the high-octane UCF offense, the two young corners looked to be overmatched. Fearing the big-play threat of Bortles’ strong arm, Williams and Lucas consistently lined up as much as 8-10 yards off the line of scrimmage. The veteran quarterback easily took advantage though, repeatedly tossing short 5- to 8-yard routes towards the sidelines on first and second down to set up manageable third downs. UCF then converted 7 of 12 third-down opportunities.

In addition, despite playing safe coverage, Penn State was still unable to take away the big play, as four different UCF receivers recorded a catch of 25 yards or more. Seeing that his cornerbacks were being exposed, John Butler moved Amos back to corner to replace Williams with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. As it turned out, Butler may have picked the wrong corner to replace, as Lucas committed a costly pass inference penalty and later surrendered a big pass play after losing his footing that lead to a UCF field goal that stretched the Knights’ lead to two possessions.

The Nittany Lions would bounce back to shut down Kent State’s passing game the following week, but any hopes that the secondary had figured things out were quickly dashed after last week’s performance in Indiana.

Much like in the UCF game, Williams and Lucas frequently lined up well off of the line of scrimmage against Indiana, but even the soft coverage failed to nullify the big play. Five different Hoosiers posted a reception of 15 yards or more, as Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld picked apart the Penn State secondary to the tune of 321 yards.

Starting wideouts Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes combined for 225 yards for the Hoosiers, and in response, Amos saw some more time at corner. However, no adjustments could keep Indiana from running away with a 44-24 victory.

There is little doubt that Lucas and Williams both possess raw talent, and two years from now, they may very well form a reliable tandem at cornerback. However, to throw them both into the fire in 2013 and expect them to hold talented passing offenses at bay was simply too much to ask.

Five games into the season, the decision to move Amos from cornerback to safety appears to have been the wrong one. It’s not that Amos has played poorly at safety---although he did seem to have a bigger impact as a cornerback. Rather, it’s that if Amos was still manning one of the cornerback spots, then the development of Lucas and Williams may be a totally different story.

If Amos was retained as the number-one corner, then Lucas could have been used as the number-two corner, which would’ve taken a lot of pressure away from him as he made his transition into the starting line-up. He wouldn’t need to worry about dealing with the opposing team’s top wide receiver, and he could have learned from the veteran Amos during training camp. Then, with a year’s experience under his belt as the number-two corner, Lucas would have been more prepared to take over the number-one spot in 2014.

In this situation, Williams could have had a full-year transition period while making the move from offense to defense. From the sidelines, he would’ve been able to watch Amos play corner, and he could have perhaps gotten some game experience as a nickel corner. As a result, he would have been much more ready to take over as a starter in 2014.

The fact that Amos has been re-inserted as a cornerback several times on the season seems to indicate that the coaching staff recognizes its mistake. Going forward, though, it looks like Penn State will stick with Lucas and Williams in hopes that the experience they’ve already gained this year will spark a turnaround their play. However, with games against teams like Kent State and Eastern Michigan in the past and with match-ups against Big Ten powers Michigan and Ohio State now on the docket, the Nittany Lions can only hope that turnaround happens sooner rather than later.

Bradford Conners is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email btc5082@psu.edu.