STATE COLLEGE - Jacob Fagnano may be a fifth-year senior recruited by the Joe Paterno staff, but his story could be a blueprint for the Penn State Nittany Lions under Bill O'Brien.
Fagnano arrived as a walk-on from Williamsport High School and the type of player O'Brien may need as he deals with the NCAA's scholarship reductions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Already, Fagnano finds himself atop the depth chart at strong safety as the Nittany Lions conduct preseason practice.
"I never would have thought of it like that, but I definitely would recommend that walk-ons come here," said Fagnano while sipping a Gatorade on Thursday during the Nittany Lions' media day at Beaver Stadium. "The coaches always treat us well."
A sore right hamstring has benched Fagnano through the first week of practice, though he downplayed the timing since the team hasn't yet practiced in pads. He felt dehydration plus a lack of stretching from taking last week off was to blame.
When Fagnano returns to the practice field, he'll resume his position battle with Stephen Obeng-Agyapong at strong safety. As for the rest of the defensive backfield, corners Stephon Morris and Malcolm Willis have the most experience. Adrian Amos started one game at corner last season but has played both safety and corner this year in practice. After corner Jesse Della Valle, the only other defensive backs on the roster are walk-ons and freshmen.
Fagnano earned some respect with the new staff after he led the team in takeaways during spring practice, said defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Defensive backs coach John Butler said the margin wasn't even close, praising not just Fagnano's ability, but his attention to detail and preparation.
"Things are day to day, but he's put in enough equity that he's earned the right to get beat out and is in good shape," said Butler. "The measure of a player is how productive he is. Tackles, breakups, interceptions, how many times did you do something productive for the defense?"
Fagnano has 14 career tackles and spent most of his career on special teams, but 2012 is full of new possibilities. He passed Obeng-Agyapong on the depth chart in the spring when Obeng-Agyapong said he was hurt. Now, Fagnano has the chance to become the first area player to walk on and eventually start at Penn State since Jersey Shore's Lance Antolick at center in 2005.
"I was going to come here regardless, and as soon as I had an opportunity I'd take it," said Fagnano, "I've always been a confident athlete and there are people who'd question it, but other than that I felt I was capable all along."
Fagnano is a lifelong Penn State fan who thinks there are more like him - kids willing to come there despite NCAA sanctions including a four-year bowl ban and scholarship losses, all for a chance to play at the school they love.
"One of the reasons I came here was Penn State treats walk-ons well. Penn State does a good job keeping us around when we work with the team and we get the same opportunities, no different from anyone else," said Fagnano. "You never know. In high school, recruiting is a lot more hype than skill and they see Penn State willing to take chances on Jamie Van Fleet or me. Just because we weren't on the camera in high school doesn't mean we're not as good athletes."
Obeng-Agyapong said he's now 100 percent healthy and describe his position battle as, "You just have to do it every day. Go ball and that's it."
O'Brien said he had five guys "that, in my opinion, can play" and they were, Morris, Willis, Amos, Fagnano, and Della Valle. He also thought there were some promising freshmen.
"In the secondary so far I've seen Da'Quan Davis. I think he's a good communicator, a tough kid. I think he's got good quickness, and I've enjoyed watching him play," said O'Brien. "I think we've got Jordan Lucas back there that is an athletic guy that can play corner or safety. I've been very happy with him, and Jake Kiley we're playing at safety, and he's picking it up."
Morris and Willis have the most experience, with Morris starting 13 games and Willis starting 6, though Chaz Powell and D'Anton Lynn started most of 2011. Curtis Drake was a possibility at corner but is no longer on the team. Morris thought Roof's new aggressive and physical scheme suits his style of play.
"Has it affected my role, or improved my role? In years past, it was sit back," said Morris. "This year I can finally play the way I can play and they trust the guys around us. The front seven is awesome."
Morris was looking forward to 2012 after last season, when he said he was told he'd battle Powell for one of the cornerback spots.
"I won't say I was lied to, but as you know I didn't play much, but nickel situations," said Morris. "But man, I have my chance. For everything that's gone on the last two years, now I can play a significant role, something I should have done a while ago."
Amos wasn't sure at media day where he'll end up this season, though Morris compared him to the Kansas City Chiefs' Eric Berry for his ability to cover like a cornerback but make the hits at safety.
"Once he grows up, with that body, he's a freak of nature," said Morris.
Amos was a little more humble, saying that while he's proud of his athletic ability and his range, his technique needs work. While Amos might have the physical tools of two separate players, he is only one person and is aware of the doubts of the secondary's depth.
"People say we're thin, but we have a lot of players who can compete," said Amos. "We have players people don't know about, and our freshmen are stepping up. I guess we'll see come Sept. 1."