Stephon Morris has heard the call ever since a dejected Penn State team walked off the field at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas more than seven months ago.
The Nittany Lions had just been beaten, handily, by an upstart Houston team in the TicketCity Bowl. The embarrassment, though, had sunk in long before that for the university and its football program.
With the loss in the past, but the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal still very much at the forefront, Penn State needed its then-junior class to step up and lead the program into an uncertain future as seniors.
With four key members of the Penn State secondary lost to graduation — Drew Astorino, D’Anton Lynn, Chaz Powell and Nick Sukay — Morris, a cornerback, is left as the lone senior representative in a unit that will undoubtedly need guidance this season.
He’s up for the challenge.
“I had to (step up),” Morris said at last month’s Lift for Life. “I didn’t really take that leadership role last year because we had them senior guys. I feel like I’ve always been a leader, but now I have to look myself in the eye after the bowl game. It’s my time to step up and help these other guys.”
Morris registered five tackles in the bowl game loss, but he and the rest of the Lions secondary were rendered useless against a Houston passing attack that racked up more than 500 passing yards.
Then the questions started.
If the Penn State secondary played so poorly in the bowl game, how could the Lions be expected to defend any kind of pass game this season while having to replace four impact players?
Morris has heard the questions, but he’s not buying in.
“It’s been a motivating factor I think ever since Powell, Sukay and those guys left,” Morris said. “We know it was gonna be me and (free safety) Malcolm (Willis). We’ve been hearing since the bowl game that we’re depleted, the secondary was gonna suck this year. We kinda like that. We’re just ready to get it started and just show people what we’re about.”
That may prove more difficult now, though, given that the secondary has been hit the hardest from a numbers standpoint since coach Bill O’Brien took over last January.
Cornerback Derrick Thomas, who was fighting with sophomore Adrian Amos for the starting spot opposite Morris in spring practice, was removed from the team. He joined converted corner Curtis Drake, who was removed from the team earlier in the year.
Reserve safety Tim Buckley followed via a transfer to NC State after the NCAA permitted Penn State players to transfer without penalty. And most recently it was reported that junior cornerback Mike Wallace will miss the entire season after undergoing surgery.
The hits have forced younger players to fill needed roles, but so far O’Brien is pleased with the progress.
“The secondary has a number of good returning players and also some younger players in there that we feel can really help us,” O’Brien said in a teleconference Thursday. “Guys like Da’Quan Davis or a Jordan Lucas in addition to the steady (guys).”
Davis and Lucas are both freshman who look to factor in at corner and safety, respectively. Senior Jake Fagnano appears to have a hold on the strong safety position, provided he can stay healthy enough to play, while redshirt sophomore corner Jesse Della Valle, who had an interception in the Blue-White game, and redshirt junior safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong are expected to contribute.
The most intriguing option, though, is Amos.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Baltimore native played in 12 games at cornerback as a true freshman a year ago and will see an increased roll this season — though not exclusively at corner.
Amos was moved to safety in the spring, but was listed back at corner on the post-spring depth chart. Morris raved about Amos’ ability to play either position last month and O’Brien hinted at using Amos in both roles this season.
“We move him all around,” O’Brien said. “He’s a guy that can do a lot of different things and I’m really happy to have him on the team. He’s one of our better players.”
To make sure things go over smoothly with the new-look secondary, Morris has taken the younger players under his wing. Although Amos is just a sophomore, he and Willis have joined Morris in mentoring the more inexperienced secondary players who will see an increased role this season.
Time will tell if the guidance pays off.
“Guys know what’s in front of us, the times we have to face with the loss of bodies,” Morris said. “We have guys that have been here three years who haven’t really played and now they’re gonna have to play. That’s one of the challenges is getting them ready. When Week 1 comes around, we can’t have any flaws.”