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Penn State Football: Garrett Taylor is Latest in Long Lion of Stalwart Safeties

by on July 14, 2019 6:00 PM

Forget LBU.

Penn State is turning into The Safety School.

Why it’s safe to say so:

Nine Nittany Lion safeties have started at least one game for James Franklin since the 2014 season, led by Marcus Allen, with 46.

Of those nine, five have been drafted by the NFL, a sixth spent parts of the past two seasons in The League, and a seventh had an NFL mini-camp tryout.

The other two? They’re still on Penn State’s roster in 2019 — fifth-year senior Garrett Taylor and redshirt sophomore Jonathan Sutherland.

Taylor, who started a dozen games and was PSU’s No. 3 tackler in 2018, is likely NFL-bound after this season. He had three interceptions in 2018, eighth in the Big Ten, and capped off last year with 10 tackles against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.

“Garrett understands it. He’s done a real nice job,” said Nick Scott during bowl season, before Scott was picked in the seventh round of the draft by the Los Angeles Rams this spring.

Scott, who started all 13 games at safety for Penn State last season after bouncing around as a running back (pre-Saquon) and special teams ace, was a two-time captain. The football-savvy 5-foot-11, 201-pounder from Virginia sees a lot of himself in the 6-foot, 198-pound Taylor, also from Virginia.

“Garrett’s a leader in the safety room. A lot of guys look up to him,” Scott said. “He’s one of the hardest workers I know. He fits in great and I think he’s going to do a great job finishing up his career and leading those guys.”

DO THE SAFETY DANCE

Taylor and Scott are just the latest in what is turning into a steady line of Penn State standout safeties. The recent list:

The five draftees: Adrian Amos, now with the Green Bay Packers after four standout seasons in Chicago (fifth round, 2015); Jordan Lucas, in his second year with Kansas City after two years in Miami (sixth round, 2016); second-year NFL safeties Troy Apke of the Redskins (fourth round, 2018) and Allen of the Steelers (fifth round, 2018); and Scott.

Add to that mix Malik Golden, who signed as a free agent with San Francisco in 2017, then spent the last two seasons on injured reserve with the Steelers, and Ryan Keiser, who had a tryout with the Baltimore Ravens in 2015.

Taylor appreciates — and is motivated by — those came before him.

“It’s something I take a lot of pride in, especially being in the safety room,” Taylor says. “Coach Franklin talks about that all the time, setting the standard for Penn State and where we want our room to go, in terms in this program.

“Penn State has been known as LBU, with a lot of great running backs coming through,” he added. “Now, we’re trying to set that standard for safeties. With guys like Amos in the league, plus Marcus and Trap both getting drafted last year and Nick getting a chance this year, I hope we can continue that tradition. It’s something we all take a lot of pride in.”

SCHOOLED AS A SAFETY

Taylor is an excellent student, who is pursuing a second degree after already earning one in advertising/public relations. The bespectacled former No. 1 high school cornerback in Virginia is soft-spoken, but as a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, he is also a student of the game. And Scott.

“I love Nick a lot,” Taylor said last postseason. “He did a great job of taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes, with what it means to be a leader out here at safety. Being out there playing next to Nick was a great opportunity. He went through a lot of different position changes, but you never heard him complain once. He just kept his head down and worked hard.”

Taylor watched and learned from Allen and Apke as well. In fact, the program has seen so much churn in the position room and at D-coordinator since Amos arrived, that the veteran safeties — acting as mentors and role models — have been a key constant.

“The main thing I’ve learned is how to approach the game — how to get that extra film study in, how to get in the weight room and get extra reps,” Taylor said. “You need to do more than what is required. Those guys obviously had great instincts for the game, especially Marcus in the run game and Trap in the pass game. When I was new at safety, I would watch and learn from them.”

Like Taylor, Scott was motivated by those before him. Among that group was Jesse Della Valle, who although never made the NFL, started a few games at safety and was strong in special teams, just like Scott and Taylor.

“We’ve always had a lot of great safeties, a lot of extremely smart safeties who are physical guys,” Scott said. “It instills a sense of pride, for sure, because I know what those guys have done. You always want to compete to that level.

“Amos is always a guy who people Iooked up to; Marcus and Jesse Della Valle too. Our safety room the past couple of year has had a high standard when it comes to talent and understanding the position. Growing into this position I’ve always wanted to make those guys proud. I talk with Marcus every now and then, after he watches a game. Same thing with Trap and Malik; those are guys I’m close to.”

Tim Banks has coached the Penn State safeties since arriving in 2016. He has continued the good work done by predecessors Bob Shoop, Anthony Midget, John Butler, Kermit Buggs and Tom Bradley. Penn State’s string of safety prowess goes back to the days of the Hero position, a versatile strong safety/semi-linebacker spot originally named and created by former Penn State head coach Rip Engle in the 1950s. (He though the oft-used “monster” a bit too nasty.) Players  like Michael Zordich Sr., now an assistant coach at Michigan, and  former Steeler/longtime Packers assistant Darren Perry — both first-team All-Americans — personified the position.

Joe Paterno, Bill O’Brien and Franklin each had a hand in bringing in at least one Penn State safeties taken in the past five drafts, beginning with Amos in 2015. (Meanwhile, LBU hasn’t a single ’backer selected in the past half-dozen NFL drafts. Cam Brown should change that in 2020.)

TAYLOR MADE

Taylor seems destined to be Pick No. 6. (Sutherland, Lamont Wade and Lackawanna JC transfer Jaquan Brisker are all in the mix to start opposite Taylor, known as GT.)

When last season ended, Taylor said he was ready to assume a bigger role in 2019, beyond the tackles and the picks (against Ohio State, Michigan State and Rutgers, which he returned for a collective 84 yards).

“I think my leadership role has expanded as my role on the field has expanded,” Taylor said. “When I first started playing it was mostly on special teams and a couple of snaps here and there at the end of a game.

“Earning that starting role showed guys what you could accomplish with the right work ethic in the offseason and being willing to do what is necessary to be successful. I was more comfortable speaking up a bit more. As the season went on, I was productive and made plays. Guys have been open to my advice and are more likely take in what I have to say.”

Follow in the footsteps of GT, as he has done of others?

That’s a safe(ty) bet, for sure.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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