Last updated: February 17. 2013 9:26AM - 63 Views

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Sometimes the answer really is that simple.

Why hasn't Penn State used a conventional nickel package on defense in six games?

"We'll play nickel," new secondary coach John Butler said, "when we have nickel personnel.

"(People) out there are wondering why we don't play nickel. I guess I'm wondering why I only had six (scholarship) defensive backs when I took the job."

Simply put, the coaching staff wants its best players on the field. And the Nittany Lions aren't comfortable with going nickel – pulling one of their dynamic linebackers for a fifth defensive back on passing downs.

"What we're not going to do is take a player off the field who's better than maybe a secondary player," Butler said.

So as much as Butler and the Lions would like to shake things up with different looks, it's not something that's likely to happen this season.

Penn State has just six scholarship players in the secondary right now – corners Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos and Da'Quan Davis and safeties Malcolm Wills, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Williamsport's Jake Fagnano.

A seventh scholarship player, Jordan Lucas, has seen the field but only on special teams. Fellow true freshman Jake Kiley is being redshirted. Depth is filled out by walk-ons and former walk-ons like Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser.

"That's something we have to fix in recruiting," Butler said.

Butler said he would like to have 11 or 12 scholarship players in his secondary, but conceded it will likely have to be nine or 10 in the next few years because of the scholarship reductions imposed by the NCAA.

Recruiting shortfalls under the old staff and healthy heaping of attrition have landed the Lions in this situation. All four starters from last season graduated.

Some former players like Derrick Thomas were constantly in the doghouse before being dismissed from the team this offseason. Others, like Mike Wallace, are out with injuries.

Even when the new staff tried to compensate by moving Curtis Drake from receiver to corner, he didn't make the grade academically last semester and is no longer on the team.

Ideally, Butler said, rookies like Davis and Lucas would redshirt, "but they're needed right now and there's nobody else."

Those redshirts, Butler said, would be in a perfect scenario.

"We are very, very, very, very, very, very far from that," Butler said.

To compensate this season, the Lions have turned to a package that the players call "roadrunner." Defensive coordinator Ted Roof referred to it as a "big nickel."

The formation still has the standard three linebackers and four defensive backs. But sophomore Mike Hull comes in at middle linebacker and Amos slides back to safety, with Davis taking his spot at corner.

"Well, we're just trying to be as athletic as we can be," Roof said. "We have to put our most athletic people out there. However you look at it, we're doing a lot of the same stuff (schematically) with them in there."

Penn State went from allowing a stunning 90 percent of third-down conversions in the second half in losses to Ohio and Virginia to cutting that number down around 30.

"The biggest thing is our improvement on third down," Butler said. "Against Ohio U. and UVA, we were not very good on third down. We've been better because we've simplified things a bit.

"We've been focused on that situation in practice to make sure they know how critical it is to get off the field."

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