STATE COLLEGE, PA. (AP) - Penn State defensive end Jack Crawford, with his athletic frame, bald head and British accent, has little problem getting noticed in Happy Valley.
On a defense replacing all three of its starting linebackers and standout tackle Jared Odrick, the 6-foot-5 Crawford needs to stand out even more on the football field in 2010 to keep the 19th-ranked Nittany Lions’ defense rolling.
“Jared was a big leader on the field, and he had tremendous talent, and we just have to fill those shoes. I have strong confidence that we can,” Crawford said. “If we can play with the same speed throughout the whole game, there’s no doubt we can be the best, if not one of the best defensive lines in the country.”
But as a junior at St. Augustine Prep in Richland, N.J., he joined the football team and turned heads with his play at defensive end and tight end.
A scholarship offer followed from Penn State, and now Crawford is one of the team’s top returnees after getting 5 1/2 sacks and 14 1/2 tackles for a loss in 2009 _ his first season starting.
He’s no longer an unknown, and offensive lines will be sure to keep better track of Crawford with Odrick gone to the Miami Dolphins. Devon Still, Odrick’s touted backup, will step into the starting lineup.
“I would say we’re not losing anything … It’s going to be the same physical play we have here,” said senior defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu, a vocal leader. “It’s one of those things where one piece comes out, one piece comes in … the machine keeps on working.”
Still Odrick, a three-year starter, faced constant double-teams. It gave the ends more room to operate and opened tackling lanes for the linebacking trio of Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.
Those guys are gone, too.
Lee was a fiery, three-year starter who commanded respect. It’s still unclear who besides Ogbu may replace Lee’s leadership skills and be the on-field rallying point of the defense.
“On a team, you just don’t point to someone and say ‘You’re a leader,’” junior safety Drew Astorino said. “You’ve got to earn the respect from your teammates. You’ve got to do what you need to do on the field, practice room and the weight room.”
The secondary figures to be improved with Astorino back from surgery to fix a left shoulder so bad it bothered him every time he made a hit last season. Two other starters return in the defensive backfield, while promising sophomore Stephon Morris, who came off the bench on passing downs last year, should step in as a starter.
Safeties coach Kermit Buggs said experience should allow the defense to disguise more coverages, which could help experienced backups at linebacker like Nate Stupar and Bani Gbadyu get acclimated to their probable starting assignments.
Gbadyu is aware of the pressure facing the unit with Odrick and Linebacker U’s 2009 starters now in the NFL.