When Adrian Amos arrived at Penn State last summer, veteran cornerback Stephon Morris took the Calvert Hall graduate under his wing.
Morris wanted to show him the ropes and how the team's secondary did things, especially since both are from Maryland. From Day One, the pair hit it off.
"Ah, Amos, he's like my little puppy," Morris joked. "That's my guy."
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Amos, figuratively anyway, may be like a small animal to his mentor: fun to teach new tricks and play around with. But the Nittany Lions will need Amos to be much more than that this fall, and his large frame coupled with high football intelligence and speed will only help. Add new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald's new workout program, which the team has not stopped praising since it began in the spring, and Amos is poised to play a key role in Penn State's secondary for the next three years.
"I take pride in my physical play," Amos said at a recent Penn State student-athlete fundraiser. He declined to comment about the Jerry Sandusky scandal and what the football program's fallout might be from the NCAA. "I like jamming receivers and coming up and making tackles. And I benefit from that cause I'm 210 [pounds]."
The defensive back needs to be a rock in a seemingly paper-thin secondary that lost four starters to graduation and two more underclassmen who were expected to step in and see major time for vague reasons, reportedly both personal and academic. Several walk-ons are expected to see action.
"We still think we can be the best unit around, so we're just working hard everyday. But it's always pressure. It's college football," said Amos, who will likely return kicks this season as well. "People are constantly talking about [the secondary] and questioning this and questioning that. But all we can do is play."
In 2012, Penn State is projected to have as many defensive backs on scholarship — eight — as it does offensive tackles, defensive ends and defensive tackles. Three will be true freshmen including Calvert Hall graduate Daquan Davis — and the other five have limited starting experience sans Morris. The team had several injuries in the secondary last year, most notably an ankle injury that hampered Morris midseason and a neck injury that sidelined veteran D'Anton Lynn, who has graduated.
Before junior defensive backs Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas left the team, Amos had been shifted to safety in the spring after seeing time in 12 games as a freshman, where he played some nickel back and corner. He finished the year with an interception, 13 tackles and four pass breakups in 301 snaps.
This year, it is unclear where Amos will play when fall practice begins Aug. 6. Whether it's corner or safety, the sophomore isn't shying away from any challenge in the fall, although Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis said Amos has the opportunity to be a very special player at safety.
"I can play either. It's all the secondary to me," said Amos, whose father is a Baltimore city police officer. "Still have to defend passes and still have to come up and make tackles. It's just whatever the team needs, I'll do."
Originally committed to Connecticut before coach Randy Edsall jumped ship for Maryland, Amos wasn't a can't-miss prospect coming out of Calvert Hall. According to Scout.com, the only offers he held were from Penn State, Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Connecticut. But in his first game in Beaver Stadium, Amos' No. 4 blue jersey stood out right away.
Amos had an interception, outjumping Indiana State's Ednut Egberongbe on a slightly underthrown ball down the right sideline, and returned it 46 yards to set up a 3-yard touchdown run. He also had two tackles, one a jarring hit in the open field, in a 41-7 win.
Davis said every day of Amos' high school career, the former Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro player continued to improve and arrived in State College as a very mature 18-year-old, which is why he was able to hit the field right away.
"What about his game didn't make him ready to play?" Davis said. "He was strong enough, fast enough and he had been extremely well coached at his position. He was just a kid that was mature from a football standpoint."
And when he came to Happy Valley, Amos wasn't going to settle for anything less than playing time as a true freshman.
"I hold myself accountable a lot. I expect myself to make the big play," Amos said. "I would never come in to settle. I would never want to redshirt. I expect to start, and if I'm not, I would keep working to start."
Amos will likely do so this year on a defense that has relied on a bend-but-don't-break philosophy for years. Soft zones and very limited extra pressure from the linebackers did, however, help the Nittany Lions rank No. 5 in the nation in points per game allowed with 15.7 in the regular season.
Penn State's new defensive coordinator, Ted Roof, helped lead Auburn to a national title in 2011, but the defense wasn't exactly the driving force of that team. It finished 78th in the nation, allowing an all-time program high 405.8 yards per game.
In the spring, Roof said he expects more physical play from his defensive backs and wants to unleash the linebackers into the backfield more often. Amos appears ready to grant Roof's wish.
"If you can't play man at corner, you shouldn't be playing corner," Amos said. "You have to be prepared for all of it. I hope we run some man to man and do a lot of different things. We worked on a lot of stuff in the spring."
For the team's wide receivers, it has been a fun few months of combat with their defensive counterparts, who have taken a liking to the team's new physical style. Every day, there's a battle, and senior wide-out Justin Brown and Amos haven't shied away from each other. Of course, it's all in good, competitive fun, Brown said.
"He's a physical guy, a bigger guy and he's athletic," Brown said. "He likes to compete. Me and Adrian go at it and we're not going to back down."
Amos may still be seen as a kid to some — a 19-year-old sophomore with some, but not a lot of game experience in the Big Ten. But to him, and those who know him best, those games he played in last year and his hard work right now will only help him grow.
"It gave you more confidence and experience. That's the way you really get better," Amos said. "You get a feel for Big Ten play and the speed of the game. Getting thrown out there in big games, it helps you."