For all the offensive firepower returning to Penn State with a pair of Heisman Trophy candidates in the backfield, there has to be some concern for the defending Big Ten champions on the other side of the ball.
That is particularly the case in the secondary, where the Nittany Lions ranked 11th in the conference in pass defense last season and have already lost cornerback John Reid to injury.
That has left a lot of eyes this spring on Christian Campbell, a senior defensive back expected to slide into a starting corner role this fall. So far, folks at Penn State have given Campbell good reviews.
“Christian is playing unbelievably confident right now,” fellow cornerback Grant Haley told GoPSUSports.com. “Now that he’s healthy, he’s a long guy, a fast guy, he’s athletic and he can jump out of the roof so I think he’s feeling more comfortable in the defensive system and more confident in himself. At cornerback you’re going to get beat, but it’s the next play mentality and I think he’s taking a step forward with that.”
Campbell has been known as a speedster since he arrived at Penn State, but coaches and teammates have noted he has improved his strength and overall athleticism this offseason. Now it is a matter of seeing if he is mentally prepared for a more prominent role.
Not that Campbell is exactly inexperienced — he played in 12 games last season and started two. He was a key special teams performer his first two years, but 2017 will likely put him on the field in more high pressure situations playing opposite Haley, a returning starter.
“Both of those guys have played a lot of football for us and we consider both of those guys returning starters, they are having great springs and getting better,” defensive back coach Terry Smith said.
The Nittany Lions are counting on that improvement after allowing opponents to complete 62 percent of their passes for more than 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns. Penn State ranked ahead of only Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern in the Big Ten in pass defense.
That’s a key for James Franklin’s program to take the next step. After finishing the 2016 season with a loss to USC in the Rose Bowl and a No. 7 ranking in the final AP Poll, the Nittany Lions have to be considered among the favorites to make the four-team College Football Playoff.
That’s at least partially because Franklin, a former Vanderbilt coach, has brought some of the vaunted SEC speed to Happy Valley. That includes Campbell, an Alabama native and former three-star recruit who spurned southern programs to head to a Big Ten outpost.
With the talent Penn State has returning — quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley will be among the most heralded players in the nation — it’s a decision that could pay off this season. However, to have a truly happy ending, Campbell needs to turn what Franklin has called the senior’s best offseason to date into his most productive fall.