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Communication Key for Willis and Nittany Lion Secondary

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Having started in 17 career games at safety, Malcolm Willis enters 2013 as the elder statesmen of the Nittany Lion secondary.

Willis will lead a group of defensive backs determined to make more big plays when opportunities present themselves in the fall.  Through five spring practices under the direction of new defensive coordinator John Butler, Willis thinks the Lions have started 2013 off on the right foot.

8777663.jpeg"Things have gone well in the secondary," Willis said.  "We are starting to make a lot more plays on the ball.  That was one of our big down points last year.  We had a number of opportunities in games, but we didn't make the plays.  So, Coach Butler and Coach Midget have really emphasized for us to make plays on the ball."

Willis has taken it upon himself to make sure that everybody on the defense understands the concepts to ensure that the group is successful.  That process starts with communication between the veterans and the newcomers to the Penn State defense.

"We are coming along well as a defense," Willis said.  "Like I said before, we need to make sure those veteran guys are helping the younger guys learn off of them.  We need to make sure those guys are in the film room watching enough film.  We also have to make sure those younger guys are asking questions when they come off the field.  As long as we communicate with each other, we will be OK."

The Nittany Lion defense is five practices into the tenure of John Butler as the defensive coordinator.  While there is a new face in charge, Willis and the safeties are very familiar with Butler having spent a full season under his leadership in the secondary.  The fiery defensive coordinator demands a lot from his players, but he is the first guy to show praise when they execute.

"He hasn't changed at all," Willis said.  "It is fun the way he coaches.  I love how competitive it is.  He gets after you when you mess up, but he lets you know when you do something well.  He's always in your ear about every little thing to make sure you are in the right place because the smallest little thing could be the difference between a pass breakup and a completion."

In addition to a new coordinator, Willis and his fellow safeties are on the field for the first time under new safeties coach Anthony Midget.  Midget is an intense guy on the practice field, but he is a teacher.

"He is like Coach Butler," Willis said.  "He might be a little less enthusiastic, but he is a great coach.  He has been to the highest level as a player.  He has played in the NFL and he has been an All-American in college.  So any coaching that he has, we need to make sure we take in."

A big key for the secondary in 2013 will be the emergence of a group of young, talented corps of players who will provide depth to the unit.  Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Adrian Amos all bring a great deal of starting experience back for 2013, but Willis is excited about the emergence of younger talent this spring.

"It's been really good to see how the younger guys have progressed," Willis said.  "Some of the younger guys who have really stepped up this spring are Jordan Lucas, Ryan Keiser; Trevor Williams has been a big surprise since they moved him over to defense.  He has been practicing really well.  That is just naming a few."

The big message Willis is trying to convey to the younger players in the secondary is the same one Coach Butler is preaching to the entire defense: Make plays when you are in position to do so.  The Nittany Lion secondary broke up 22 passes in 2012, but made just three interceptions.  Willis wants to see the Lions take advantage of their opportunities better in 2013.

"The main thing is film study," said Willis.  "If you understand the defense and you understand where you need to be and you understand the way that the offense is trying to attack you, you will be able to anticipate things before the snap of the ball.  Once you are in that spot, you need to make the play."

Physically, Willis said he feels great after a strong offseason in the weight room.  The Lion senior dropped a few pounds of body fat and added some muscle during the offseason.

"I feel good.  The whole team has taken tremendous strides in terms of conditioning," said Willis.  "We are all in much better shape than we were this time last year."

With 10 practices to go during the spring season, Willis wants to see the defense continue to grow as a cohesive unit, and that starts with good communication.

"For us a defense, I want to make sure that we are communicating really well to make sure that we have that team camaraderie, so that when the spring game is here we can polish that up and then over the summer work at it more, so that by the time week one comes we will be ready to go" Willis said.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

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