From a puzzling and disappointing opening loss to Ohio to a satisfying overtime defeat of Wisconsin, the 2012 Penn State team usually made things entertaining. In his first season at the helm, Bill O'Brien got contributions from veterans and rising stars at most positions throughout the course of the season. Today, Lions247 awards final grades to each position and examines what they meant to the team as a whole. Part I looked at the offense, while Part II takes a look at the defense and special teams.
Gerald Hodges and the linebacking corps were the heart of a strong Penn State defense.
Defensive line -- B+
Midseason Grade -- B+
This group was worn down by depth issues and the inability of Penn State's offense to maintain possession in the second halves of losses to Ohio State and Nebraska but, when fresh, was pretty good. Senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill, as expected, led the way, dominating in the middle despite playing through a painful knee injury down the stretch. Fellow tackle DaQuan Jones, while not having the breakout season some predicted, was solid enough alongside Hill, and senior James Terry, who had injury issues of his own, was a reliable backup. Defensive end Deion Barnes never hit the freshman wall and served more notice he could be a dominant force for seasons to come. Sean Stanley was quietly efficient on the other side, Pete Massaro was finally able to enjoy some healthy success and youngsters like Anthony Zettel, C.J. Olaniyan and Kyle Baublitz got some valuable reps.
Linebackers -- A
Midseason Grade -- A
This unit fielded two of arguably the top 10 defensive players in the conference in seniors Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, who were everything the coaches asked of them all season long, forcing turnovers, making the hustle plays and providing intensity and leadership. Junior Glenn Carson had another no-flash, no-frills season in the middle and Mike Hull filled in admirably for him on passing downs and was adequate in place of Mauti over the final two games. This group was solid against the run and improved its pass coverage skills as the season progressed. The only possible negative was that the starters almost never came off the field, and young players like Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman didn't get many reps, but that's nit-picking. Credit Ron Vanderlinden for another job well done.
Defensive backs -- B-
Midseason Grade -- C+
Perhaps no unit on the team improved more from the start of the season to the end. Cornerbacks Stephon Morris and Adrian Amos were solid all season long, rarely allowing themselves to be beaten on the perimeter and providing some big hits and sure tackling in run support and in one-on-one situations. After a shaky start, safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong settled in and were two big reasons why Penn State's defensive third-down percentage dropped dramatically after the losses to Ohio and Virginia. Reserve safety Jacob Fagnano had plenty of rough moments but also came up with several big pass break-ups and a key interception against Wisconsin. Freshman cornerbacks DaQuan Davis and Jordan Lucas showed some raw ability and that they have plenty to learn. There were a few more interceptions and game-changing plays that this group could have made but it made big strides as Penn State hit the homestretch.
Special teams -- C+
Midseason Grade -- C
Two players who struggled early on -- kicker Sam Ficken and punter Alex Butterworth -- both turned in strong performances down the stretch and wound up being the highlights of the specialty units. The Nittany Lions could not break off any big kickoff returns and Jesse Della Valle, while solidifying a position that was potentially disastrous in September, only had a couple of long punt returns. The coverage teams were victimized on several occasions, though the punt block unit came up with a couple of momentum-changing plays. The kind of athletes John Butler and the rest of the special teams coaches are able to find for these units on rosters short on scholarships could wind up being extremely important. He did a solid job with what he had to work with this season.