Willis enters 2012 with 87 career tackles in two seasons.
Today we continue our 12 for 2012 series. The list won't necessarily cover the 12 best players on the squad, but those whose production and presence on and off the field will be needed the most if the Nittany Lions are to have the kind of success they're looking for this season.
No. 9 -- Malcolm Willis
Rewind: After a terrific career at the traditionally strong Lackey High School program in Maryland, Willis took a redshirt for the 2009 season. He filled in for injured veterans Nick Sukay and Andrew Dailey in 2010, gaining valuable experience and finishing sixth on the team with 54 tackles. The top backup to Sukay and Drew Astorino and the team's chief nickel back for most of 2011, he made 33 tackles and added a blocked punt. Willis, the most experienced safety on Penn State's 2012 roster, emerged from the spring as the starter at free safety.
The Take: The 5-foot-11, 209-pound Willis has seen time at both safety spots and understands the responsibilities of each position. A solid tackler and good hitter, he is better suited to stopping the run than covering receivers one-on-one, and lacks the size and elite ball skills to be a true difference-maker. However, his experience and football savvy will not only enable him to react to plays more quickly but also help him bring his younger teammates in the secondary along. One of only two players in the secondary with starting experience (senior cornerback Stephon Morris) is the other, he's battled an ankle injury that has sidelined him for much of the preseason but is expected to be ready for the season opener against Ohio.
The Forecast: Depth in the secondary will one of the biggest issues for the Nittany Lions in 2012, but the starters, including Willis, could be more than solid if they remain healthy. New defensive coordinator Ted Roof will not be afraid to mix up his coverages and apply pressure, meaning the secondary will be left on its own on several plays. As the free safety, Willis will often be the final line of defense. If his teammates take coach-approved gambles and miss, he will be counted on to clean up the messes. A healthy and productive Willis strengthens the Nittany Lions at two positions -- free safety and at cornerback, where Adrian Amos will play unless he has to fill in at safety for Willis.