Sometimes football is a numbers game.
Stephon Morris (12) has helped Bill O'Brien break in a very young Penn State secondary this spring.
Stephon Morris had been a key contributor in the Penn State secondary during his freshman and sophomore seasons, averaging 35 tackles and recording 11 starts. Last season, though, with seniors D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell ahead of him on the depth chart, the cornerback made just two starts and 19 tackles.
This spring, the numbers were different in the secondary. Morris went from being the odd man out to the man, period. The Nittany Lions leaned on the 5-foot-8 senior from Greenbelt, Md., to provide stability and leadership in a rebuilt defensive backfield.
"Most of the guys already looked at me as a leader," Morris said after the Blue-White Game. "That wasn't hard at all. I felt like if I set the bar and did everything the right way they'll follow."
The question of the spring might have been who would follow Morris. Lynn, Powell and safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay graduated, leaving Morris and safety Malcolm Willis as the only returning players with starting experience. Penn State moved Curtis Drake to cornerback and got Adrian Amos work at both corner and safety, but injuries to safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Mike Wallace set the group's development back.
"No, I don't like the depth," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "We're very thin, and we've got to get better."
Secondary coach John Butler had a lot of material to cover with his new players this spring, and Morris knew it.
"I try to give him as much help as I can," he said. "Staying on them about grades, setting up times with them as far as meetings. But like I said, all credit to Coach Butler, because he's doing a hell of a job with each one of us."
His teammates appreciate the job Morris has done, too.
"He's been more vocal," Amos said. "He's calling us up. After meetings he's talking to us and telling us we have to be the best secondary in the Big Ten."
Morris won the Jim O'Hora Award, given to the team's most improved defensive player during the spring. Doing so had been a goal of his, he said after the Blue-White Game, because it signified that he had been improving his level of play.
"It's really been a process from his perspective, but from my perspective it's been fun watching him," said Willis, his roommate. "To have the so-called down year that he had, and then to bounce back from it in the spring the way he did, it's remarkable. It shows a lot about what he's about and what he values in life and his character."
Morris has embraced the changes in scheme Roof and Butler have brought to the secondary. Like Roof, he knows Penn State's defensive backs have a long way to go. But he's enjoying the journey.
"I'm happy. When you're a happy camper it makes everything so much easier," he said. "Our coaches, they believe in us. They know we work hard, and we want to do right for them. Coach O'Brien set a bar that we have to meet. The only way we can do that is go out there each and every day. Whether it's lifting, running with Coach Fitz (Craig Fitzgerald) or on the field, we have to get better each and every day."