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Penn State safety finds footing under new coaching staff

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Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State Nittany Lions safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (7) tackles Navy Midshipmen running back John Howell (33) during their game in University Park, Pa on Saturday September 15, 2012. Penn State defeated Navy 34-7.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Scott Brown
Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 11:22 p.m.
 

He planned to study architectural engineering at Penn State until a couple of classes “scared” him off. Strong safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong didn't exactly retreat to the shallow end of the academic pool when he instead majored in information science and technology.

“He's very, very smart,” said receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder, one of Obeng-Agyapong's roommates. “When we have questions in the house, we go to him.”

Obeng-Agyapong finally has answered the one question that had largely stumped him through his first three seasons — how to get on the field — and his emergence has helped alleviate concerns that had been raised about Penn State's secondary before the season.

Obeng-Agyapong and Penn State's defensive backs should be tested this week by Indiana's up-tempo office. The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in passing (293.2 yards per game), and Penn State free safety Malcolm Willis is unlikely to play because of an ankle injury.

Nobody, however, more embodies how Penn State's secondary has responded to challenges than Obeng-Agyapong.

The redshirt junior overcame a tough season opener — he missed making a routine interception that instead went for a touchdown and changed the complexion of the Ohio game — to become an integral part of the secondary.

“I'm not surprised,” said senior cornerback Stephon Morris, who is also roommates with Obeng-Agyapong. “He's showed a lot of poise this season, and he's one of our big hitters.”

He may be one of their more unlikely ones, too.

Obeng-Agyapong grew up in New York City, the son of African immigrants who stressed education and worked hard to provide for him and his older sister.

His father drives a taxi and is saving money so he can realize his dream of one day returning to his native Ghana and opening a carpentry business. Obeng-Agyapong's mother works as a dietician at a New York hospital, and if his parents didn't know much about football when they relocated to the United States they didn't settle in a place where the sport is ingrained.

Obeng-Agypong grew up playing basketball, and the aggressiveness that allowed him to compete even though he admittedly did not have much of a jump shot eventually nudged him toward football.

Obeng-Agyapong went to the same Bronx high school as former Nittany Lions tailback Stephfon Green, and he followed Green to Penn State. Obeng-Agyapong, who also fielded scholarship offers from Iowa, Maryland and UConn, didn't play much after redshirting his freshman season.

He took advantage of the graduation of multiyear starters such as Nick Sukay and the fresh start that came with a new coaching staff to win a starting job this fall.

The 5-foot-10, 207-pounder has made 30 tackles, including two for losses, and has broken up or defended eight passes.

Obeng-Agyapong has also played through a painful injury — his right shoulder sometimes pops out during games — that may require surgery at the end of the season.

Ultimately, he has validated he can play at this level, something that had been a question as recently as September.

Obeng-Agyapong was involved in a couple of long pass plays that went against Penn State in its first two games. But he stayed the course, and Morris said the Navy game was a turning point for the first-year starter.

Obeng-Agyapong hasn't looked back since.

“I know the coaches had my back, and they saw what they needed to see in me,” Obeng-Agyapong said.

Notes: Cornerback Jesse Della Valle has been playing safety in practice. The Shaler graduate will provide depth if Willis is unable to play against Indiana. Jake Fagnano would start if Willis doesn't play. ... Quarterback Matt McGloin is one of 50 finalists for the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the country's top player who started his career as a walk-on. McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing (267.6 yards per game) and is tied for the lead in touchdown passes (19).

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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