It's been four up and two down for the Penn State football team in the first half of Bill O'Brien's first season. The Nittany Lions have made it interesting each week, working through some growing pains along with injury and depth issues while showing some terrific flashes of potential. Six more games lie ahead, but first, we give a position-by-position breakdown of how the Nittany Lions performed in the first half of the season. Part I focused on the offense. Part II looks at the defense and special teams.
Linebacker Gerald Hodges is on pace for a 100-tackle senior season.
Defensive line -- B+
This grade might be lower than it should be, because the defensive line has played well, but you get the sense that this group is capable of more. Jordan Hill has 28 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception while handling persistent double-teams. Fellow tackles DaQuan Jones and James Terry have been solid but not incredibly disruptive. With defensive end Pete Massaro sidelined for most of the season with various injuries, sophomore Deion Barnes has gotten increased opportunities and used them to get after quarterbacks, recording four sacks and doing much of his damage in the fourth quarter. On the other side, Sean Stanley has just a half a sack but has been playing solid assignment football and forcing quarterbacks to move. Young reserves C.J. Olaniyan and Anthony Zettel have displayed talent and some need for refinement but have provided some valuable reps.
Linebackers -- A
Seniors Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are playing as well as anyone in football, making plays all over the field and forcing quarterbacks to make quick decisions when they blitz. Their leadership and emotion have been just as valuable. Glenn Carson has been his usual solid self against the run, though he has had some trouble in pass coverage. Mike Hull has given Ted Roof another element on passing downs and is one of the reasons Penn State has been better at forcing punts as the season has gone on. Freshman Nyeem Wartman showed plenty of promise before his early injury.
Defensive backs -- C+
The group as a whole has been much steadier during the last few weeks but the plays they didn't make earlier in the season were costly. Cornerbacks Stephon Morris and Adrian Amos have been very good in run support and making tackles in open space. They haven't been tested often because teams haven't thrown the ball much -- and haven't had much time to throw thanks to the front seven. Malcolm Willis has been playing through minor injuries and been solid. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has made some big hits and is taking better angles than he did earlier in the year. Freshman DaQuan Davis has had to grow up fast as the third corner. Jacob Fagnano, who has seen time at both safety spots with the starting unit, is not a liability but there's a noticeable dropoff when he's in the game. Penn State's defensive backs are still looking for their first interception of the season and have just seven of the team's 20 pass breakups.
Special teams -- C
Some of Sam Ficken's troubles can be attributed to the snap, the hold and the protection, but not all of them. O'Brien's inability to trust his kicker has made Penn State more fun to watch but could wind up being costly in a tight game. Punter Alex Butterworth has been good at downing kicks inside the opponents' 5-yard line but his consistency on longer kicks leaves a lot to be desired. The coverage teams have put up good overall numbers and, in a few cases, helped set up touchdowns. With only a few exceptions, however, the punt and kickoff return units have failed to give Penn State much of a field position advantage.