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Senior safety Willis helps mentor youthful Penn State secondary

Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State safety Malcolm Willis (10) tackles Northwestern's Tony Jones on October 06, 2012, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.

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By Scott Brown
Friday, April 19, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

His experience and status as a returning starter makes Penn State strong safety Malcolm Willis an unlikely candidate to win one of the two most improved player awards that will be presented at halftime of the Blue-White game.

But if there were an award given to the most indispensable player this spring, Willis would be on a short list of candidates.

The fifth-year senior has helped with the transition to a new secondary coach and mentored a pair of players who made the move from wide receiver to the defensive backfield. He is also one of the reasons why coach Bill O'Brien is not concerned about leadership even though the Nittany Lions lost a bunch of it to graduation with seniors such as Michael Mauti and Mike Zordich.

“Just because those guys are gone doesn't mean we're depleted in the leadership category,” O'Brien said. “We feel really good about the guys that are back for us now.”

Willis helped fill any leadership void this spring, acting as a de facto player/coach.

“Malcolm Willis has been great, a tremendous leader,” said safeties coach Anthony Midget, who joined the staff in February and also lauded returning free safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. “That makes it a lot easier as opposed to coming in if I was dealing with a lot of freshmen and guys who didn't have playing experience.”

Willis has played regularly since 2010, and he is one of three returning starters in the secondary.

That experience has made the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder a go-to guy for young defensive backs such as Da'Quan Davis, Jordan Lucas, Malik Golden and Trevor Williams.

Davis, Lucas and Williams, a converted wideout, are battling for the starting cornerback spot opposite Adrian Amos. Golden will be looked to provide depth at safety after moving from wide receiver.

The development Golden and other younger players make is critical to Penn State's plans to use five or even six defensive backs at times in 2013 — something it rarely did last season.

“When guys ask me questions or look up to me in the (defensive backs) room or in the secondary, that's just a testament of me growing as a football player,” said Willis, whose 45 tackles last season ranked seventh on the team. “Part of my role as a leader is to pull those guys when I see a mistake or I see them not doing the right thing.”

The area where Willis wants to lead this fall is in the big-play category.

Penn State's defensive backs recorded only three of the team's 10 interceptions last season.

“We need to make more plays on the ball,” said Willis, who didn't have an interception in 2012. “We've been making that a point of emphasis this spring, myself included. I need to make plays when the opportunity presents itself.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @ ScottBrown_Trib.

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