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Penn State Football’s Defense Rocks Under Pry and Spence

by on June 06, 2019 7:00 PM

Expect Penn State’s defense to rock in 2019.

And be the Nittany Lions’ rock. Again.

A big reason for that — beyond and behind Micah and Yetur — is the combo of Brent Pry and Sean Spencer.

Pry is the D-coordinator and linebacker coach. Spencer coaches the D-line and is associate head, a title Pry ceded to him last spring.

They are James Franklin’s rocks.

Like offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, they have been with Franklin since his first season as a head coach. That would be Vanderbilt in 2011. Unlike Rahne, their path to Nashville was decidedly peripatetic, taking them to a combined 16 stops.

Before landing at Vandy, Pry coached college football for 19 years at seven schools, chiefly in the south, at Buffalo, East Stroudsburg, Virginia Tech, Western Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis and Georgia Southern.

The road to Vandy was filled with even more chaos for Spencer, who in his first 16 seasons as a college football coach made nine stops, at: Wesleyan, Shippensburg, Trinity, UMass, Holy Cross, Villanova, Hofstra, UMass (again) and Bowling Green.

They have seen myriad assistants come and go, and despite chances to move along themselves, they have stayed by Franklin’s side.

Now, 105 games after being hired by Franklin — with a 69-36 record and eight consecutive bowl games after walking into two very challenging situations— they are headed into Year No. 9 with CJF and Season No. 6 at PSU.

Penn State has been the best job either has ever had. And some say they are on the cusp of their best defense ever as Nittany Lion leaders. 


The 2019 Penn State defense has been tabbed as high as No. 2 in some preseason assessments, testament to a roster full of talent, a strong 2018 campaign, and a defensive line that is as sack-happy as any in the country over the past three years.

Also credit cornerback coach Terry Smith, who has been with Pry and Spencer since their first Penn State season, and Tim Banks, who arrived in 2016.

But the main architects of the Nittany Lion defense are the two coaches who Franklin leans on the most. 

They may need their best efforts in 2019. The Penn State offense is young, with first-time starters at quarterback and running back, and key losses along the offensive line.

The reliance on the D won’t be anything new, at least lately. This ain’t no 2016 and ’17. Over the final nine games of the 2018 season, Penn State relied heavily on its defense while limping to a 5-4 record. In that final stretch, the PSU offense averaged just 24.1 points, while at the same time the defense yielded 21 points per game — and gave up only 20 points overall in the final three regular season games.

Penn State’s defense spent a lot of time on the field in 2018, as opponents’ average time of possession was 32 minute and 19 minutes, compared to 27:41 for the Nittany Lion offense. The difference, over the course of the season, amounted to an extra 60 minutes and 14 seconds on the field — the equivalent of two additional full games played by the Penn State D in 2018.

Still, Penn State ranked No. 19 in the country for third-down defense, allowing opposing offenses a conversion rate of 33.6%. The Penn State defense was also successful on fourth down, ranking No. 22 (42.3%).

In 2018, the Nittany Lions’ defense was great in the red zone, ranking No. 11 and allowing points on 75% of their opponents’ possessions. Overall, Penn State ranked No. 34 in total defense, giving up 350.5 yards per game.


The defensive cohesion on the field is tied to the collaboration and consecutive seasons the defensive staff has been together. Their loyalty has been rewarded in recent years. Pry makes over seven figures annually and Spence has seen significant bumps as well, after other programs have come calling for both him and Pry.

Pry knows what a good partner he has in Spencer. After the Blue-White Game, he was asked about coaching with the man behind the Wild Dogs. Pry offered some this insight:

“Sean and I have been together for nine years, so we have been through a bunch together,” Pry said. “I love working with Sean. He’s the best defensive line coach in America. There’s no way we’d do what we do up front without him. We haven’t always had the same talent as other folks, but I think we have been as productive as anyone with our front.”

The numbers bear Pry out. Pry took full charge of the defense after Bob Shoop departed following the 2015 season — Shoop had done a stellar job, as Penn State ranked No. 2 in 2014 and No. 14 in 2015 in total defense. Here’s where Penn State has ranked nationally the past three seasons in three key categories:


2018 — 350.5 yards per game, No. 34

2017 — 329.5 yards per game, No. 17

2016 — 367.9 yards per game, No. 37


2018 — 47 sacks, 3.62 per game, No. 1

2017 — 42 sacks, 3.23 per game, No. 7

2016 — 40 sacks, 2.86 per game, No. 19


2018 — 107 TFLs, 8.2 per game, No. 4

2017 — 93 TFLs, 7.2 per game, No. 25

2016 — 113 TFLs, 8.1 per game, No. 7

The Nittany Lions like to play behind the line of scrimmage. Obviously. And frequently.

“We continually play on their side of the line of scrimmage,” Pry noted. “It’s a credit to what Spence does for those guys. We have the same mindset. We don’t necessarily want to outsmart people every week. We know there’s a time when we just need to line up and play and strike and be physical and let guys do their thing. We’re not a big exotic blitz team on third down. We haven’t been because of the work Spence has done and the guys up front have done.”

Those guys up front feed off of the Spencer’s vocal and upbeat coaching style. Sophomore defensive tackle PJ Mustipher appeared in a dozen games as a true freshman in 2018, amassing 14 tackles. He credits much of his early success to his coach.

“It helps being around Coach Spence every day, with his energy and the passion he brings to the game and the guys in his room,” Mustipher said two weeks ago. “He wants to see every one of us succeed, and I think we’ve done that. We’re going to promote to that under his wing and continue to develop, given all the knowledge has given us.”

Rock-solid knowledge, you might say.

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