In 2019, the strength of the Penn State football team will be its defense.
And the strength of the defense will be, in many ways, its coaches.
Let’s not overstep, though. X’s and O’s are important, but as legendary PSU D-coordinator Tom Bradley preached to me for many years, it’s all about the Jimmys and Joes.
And that’s true for Penn State in the season ahead, which officially begins next Wednesday when spring drills commence.
So, let’s begin with the Nittany Lions’ linebacking corps, a two-deep group with a strong and disparate set of skills. There’s uber-talented and still occasionally raw Micah Parsons, solid and steady Jan Johnson, and under-rated but not under-appreciated Cam Brown. Back-ups Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa and hyped-up freshman Brandon Smith are each full of size and potential.
That’s a big group; on average, they stand 6-foot-3 and weigh 232 pounds. Still, compare that — in size, not ability; there’s a long ways to reach that territory — to the stellar 1999 starting trio of LaVar Arrington (6-3, 233) and Brandon Short (6-3, 252), both All-Americans, and Mac Morrison (6-1, 242). It’s a unit that 2019’s No. 11 & Co. can aspire to.
Just like the 1999 Nittany Lions — who had the No.1 overall draft pick, defensive end Courtney Brown — the 2019 Lions also boast of a high-end D-end in Yetur Gross-Matos. Add DT Robert Windsor, as well as a 1-2 secondary punch of safety Garrett Taylor and corner John Reid, and Penn State’s defense will have talent at all three levels. As a starting unit, you can make a (pretty easy) case that the Lions’ widest array of proven opening day top talent is on defense.
And not only talented, but experienced.
THE EXPERIENCE & RETURNING PRODCTION
Five of the Nittany Lions’ top six tacklers from 2018 are back — Parsons (1st, with 82 tackles), despite just one start last year; Johnson (No. 2, 72 tackles), Taylor (No. 3, 71 tackles), Brown (No. 5, 63 tackles) and Gross-Matos (No. 6, 54 tackles). The only dearly-departed from the top 6? Safety Nick Scott, No. 4 with 65 stops in 2018.
Let’s count experience another way — career starts. Reid is tied with O-lineman Steven Gonzalez for most returning starts with 29. All of the following defenders have at least a dozen starts under their belts: Brown and Windsor, with 14; Gross-Matos and Johnson, with 13; and Taylor, with 12.
Contrast that with the 2019 Nittany Lion offense, which must replace many of its top producers.
In 2019, Penn State’s offense returns just 15% of its rushing yards from 2018, only 10.75% of its passing yards and 63.6% of its receiving yards. (The ignitable K.J. Hamler represents 27% of those receiving yards — 754 of 2,835.)
Penn State’s experience on offense is centered around the O-line, where fully two-thirds of the entire offense’s career starts (61 of 94) are represented in just three players — Gonzalez (29), tackle Will Fries (19) and center Michael Menet (13). Only Hamler, with 13 starts, and tight end Pat Freiermuth (9) also have more than a handful, and both saw the playing field for the first time as collegians last fall.
Penn State finished last season by going 5-4 — hardly an inspiring finishing run. No offense, but the Nittany Lions had problems scoring points over that stretch, as Trace McSorley gamely fought off injuries and the backfield dealt with a prolonged absence of Ricky Slade, as well as consistencies at wide receiver.
In those four losses, Penn State scored just 75 points, with a scoring average of just less than 19 points per game. That 75 over 240 minutes is a far cry for the back-to-back 63’s the Nittany Lions hung on Kent State and Illinois over a six-day period. In reality, that was fool’s gold.
Over the final nine games, Penn State outscored the opposition by a fairly faint 220-186 margin — 24.4 to 20.7 points. Scarcely a Jake Pinegar field goal. Pretty darn good defense, save for the Michigan game. And even that was a bit of a misnomer, as the Wolverines scored 28 points in the final 956 seconds, including a pick-6.
Take away The Argh in Ann Arbor, and the Nittany Lion D — the one that has five of its six leading tacklers back in 2019 — gave up just 17.5 points per game over the final nine contests. In the final four games of the 2019 season, counting 27 points by Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, Penn State’s defense gave up just 44 points — 11 per game — in its final 240 minutes.
Pretty good reason to be excited about the PSU defense in 2019.
For the most part, head coach James Franklin leaves the Penn State defense to D-coordinator and Brent Pry. Which makes sense. I would, too.
Pry, who enters his fourth season as the Nittany Lions’ primary defensive mastermind, is darn good at his job. And despite what you read elsewhere, trust me when I say that Pry is being handsomely rewarded to the tune of $1 million-plus annually for his defense’s successes. That no one has pried Brent away, especially a few seasons ago when he turned away as many three head coaching opportunities, is a huge plus for the Nittany Lions.
Same goes for the rest of the Penn State defensive staff.
Like Pry, defensive line coach and associate head coach Sean Spencer is in his ninth season as an assistant under Franklin — three at Vanderbilt and going on six at Penn State. Now an associate head coach, Spencer is pumping out NFL-ready D-lineman almost as prodigiously as LJ Sr. did for many years under Joe Paterno.
Former Nittany Lion captain Terry Smith, who coaches the cornerbacks — past standouts like Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, and present stalwarts Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields — is also in his sixth season on Franklin’s staff.
Safeties coach Tim Banks, a former D-coordinator at Illinois who coached for two seasons with Franklin at Maryland (2003-4), is now in Year 4 at Penn State. In a short time, in a very understated fashion, Banks has developed a long line of top-notch safeties — Malik Golden, Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Scott and Taylor among them.
Longevity is important.
But, to a man, the defensive coaches are good teachers, technicians and tacticians who have been coaching in the college ranks, on average, for over 20 years. They are pros at developing players, who have improved as the season goes on.
Take away the Rose Bowl against USC, and over the final four games of the past three seasons — 11 games in all (again, not counting Jan. 2, 2017) — Penn State’s defense has given up just 14.7 points per game.
Two touchdowns. Wow.
Mad props to Pry & Co.
This is not to disparage the Nittany Lions’ offensive staff — O-line coach Matt Limegrover has almost three decades in the profession and was O-coordinator at Minnesota, while Ricky Rahne is in Year 11 with Franklin. However, Ja'Juan Seider, Tyler Bowen and brand-new Gerad Parker have worked with Franklin for a grand total of six seasons.
Between the two of them, Pry and Spencer have been with CJF for 18 seasons — and a combined five-plus decades as college coaches.
Penn State’s defensive staff has, on average, been at PSU for 5.5 seasons, with Franklin for an average of 7.5 seasons, and have been in the profession at the college level for an average of 20.25 seasons.
Conversely, Penn State’s offensive staff has been at Penn State for an average of 3.0 seasons, with Franklin for an average of 4.2 seasons, and have been college coaches for an average of 15.4 seasons.
Just another reason for Penn State to be defensive in 2019.