Versatility matters for Penn State football team
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — As he'd instinctively done all of his football-playing life, Trevor Williams deftly tapped a foot to the ground to keep it in bounds after making a catch.
Through years of running pass routes as a “skill player,” 300-pound Garry Gilliam correctly calculated the angle and had faith in his ability to run down a sprinting opposing defensive back.
As he'd been taught through years of playing safety, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong intuitively made a play on a ball other linebackers might not have.
Williams was playing his first game as a cornerback for Penn State after being switched from receiver. Gilliam started at right tackle following four years on campus as a tight end. Obeng-Agyapong stepped in for an injured Mike Hull at linebacker.
Sanction-saddled Penn State is utilizing plenty of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would call “position flexibility.” Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien has a different term — “complementary football.” And it's a compliment to players such as Williams, Gilliam and Obeng-Agyapong that they can complement their teammates at whatever position they're needed.
“Versatility and being able to play multiple things, that's what makes a great team,” said junior Adrian Amos, a converted cornerback who made his starting safety debut Saturday in a 23-17 win over Syracuse and has dabbled at linebacker in practice.
“When you've got players who can play different positions, it makes for a more complete, more deep football team.”
Williams had 10 catches and started a game at receiver last season as a true freshman after having 99 receptions as a high school senior. The lone time he caught a ball Saturday — a pickoff of Orange quarterback Drew Allen — came with 1:53 left and sealed the Nittany Lions' win.
“I've been practicing that ball drill since (midget) ball, so it was really nothing new,” Williams said.
Obeng-Agyapong, at 205 pounds, filled in admirably after Hull went down during the first quarter. He forced a fumble that he recovered in the second quarter, intercepted Allen during the third, sacked him in the fourth and finished tied for second on the Lions with eight tackles.
“He's a guy, just like a lot of those guys — all these guys — who's just a real team guy,” O'Brien said.
“We've asked him to play safety, we've asked him to play linebacker, we've asked him to play nickel, we've asked him to learn how to blitz, play the run in the box, to play coverage … so what more can we ask of that guy?”
What more can you ask of your starting right tackle than to run 30 yards down to the opposite side of the field to tackle a cornerback? Syracuse's Brandon Reddish had recovered a fumble and appeared certain to take it back for a touchdown before Gilliam brought him down at the Penn State 27.
The play, effectively, saved the Nittany Lions seven points because their defense held, and Ross Krautman missed a 43-yard field goal.
“At that point in time, I didn't know how big of a play it would be,” Gilliam said. “But when you're put in any situation, you've got to make the play.”
That was the most important play Gilliam made Saturday, but it was his steady play at tackle that will be more important to the Lions going forward.
Gilliam was one of 52 Penn State players who appeared in the victory Saturday — just one of many who proved he can contribute at new or multiple positions. Defensive end Anthony Zettel (defensive tackle) is just one example of another.
For a team that will deal with scholarship limitations for at least the next four years, such versatility can prove invaluable.
“(Playing linebacker) is definitely something I haven't done much of, but it is an art, and I think I did the transition pretty good,” Obeng-Agyapong said.
“It's no tougher than it is for any of those other guys who are doing the same thing. Any of us are happy to help us win the day any way we can.”
Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.