Forget the back story.
Forget the two seasons with nary a start. His days at cornerback. His trip into — and back from — the transfer portal.
Lamont Wade is playing in the present.
And with confidence. With success and swagger.
And, maybe, despite a storied high school history as a highly-touted five-star recruit, playing his best ever. At safety.
Who says so? Well, Wade — a 5-foot-9, 199-pound power-packed product of equally prideful and gritty Clairton, Pa. — himself. That’s who.
“I think I’ve really found myself — mentally, physically, film-wise,” Wade said after Michigan game. “It’s a combination of everything.”
The numbers concur with No. 38.
TACKLING THE CHALLENGE
Wade has started all eight games of 2019 for the fifth-ranked, 8-0 Nittany Lions, who have yielded only 77 points this season — just 9.6 points per game, second in all of college football. (Ohio State is No. 1 at 7.6 ppg.)
Overall, Wade is No. 3 on the Nittany Lion defense in tackles, with 42. He trails only linebackers Micah Parsons (57) and Cam Brown (44). Nearly half have come in the last three games. In that 15-day stretch — at Iowa, to the nearly bitter then sweet end against Michigan, then at soggy Michigan State — Wade has made 20 stops, with four pass break-ups and 1.5 tackles for a loss.
Wade has led the Nittany Lions in tackles in three games — Idaho, Purdue and Iowa — and was second last weekend against Michigan State. (Parsons also has led PSU in tackles three times, while ’backers Jan Johnson and Ellis Brooks, who stepped in when Parsons got ejected at Maryland, have each done it once.)
Still don’t believe me?
Ask Wade’s teammates.
“I would say that Lamont is a lot more confident right now,” says safety mate Garrett Taylor, a two-year starter not given to hyperbole. “I think his confidence has shown through his play — he’s flying around, making plays out there every week.”
Parsons goes Taylor one better: “Lamont has shown he’s going to be one of the better safeties in the Big Ten, if not the best.”
KJ SPEAKS UP
Let’s hear from KJ Hamler, who may know Wade better than anyone in the Penn State program. They’ve been roommates and best friends for three seasons, since their freshman year. (“The worst part?” Wade asks and answers. “KJ never stops talking.”)
Here’s Hamler talking — characteristically unabashed — about his roomie after the Michigan game, when I asked him why Wade is so much better in 2019:
“The biggest change in him is going against me a lot,” says Hamler. “Him against me, we always try different things to get better. He shows me good looks. I think his confidence has gone up. He’s one of the hardest DB’s I’ve gone up against. The two of us going back and forth makes us both better.”
("One of"? I wonder how that will play back in their apartment?)
What also has made a big difference in Wade is a firm resolve that carried him into the best summer of workouts of his football life. He contemplated leaving Penn State after last season, but made a U-turn and stayed. After that, Wade was as committed as he’s ever been. His teammates will vouch for that.
Parsons, the Reader’s Digest version: “Lamont came into the offseason ready. He took that starting job.”
Taylor, with detail: “I know his journey has been a bit difficult, coming in. He’s had a position switch, maybe didn’t play as much as he wanted to last year” — zero starts and 18 tackles, which was a fall-off from the 31 he had in 2017 as a true freshman.
“But,” Taylor added, “Lamont is a guy who has always worked hard. He stuck with the program and stuck with the safeties. We have a really close group among the safeties. We’ve embraced him and he’s embraced us. It’s been cool to see him grow.”
RINGING A BELL
Part of that growth came at the end of the Michigan game in the Whiteout spectacle a few weeks ago. Trailing 28-21 but having scored on its previous two drives, the Wolverines threatened from the Penn State 3-yard line in the final minutes, but Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell dropped the potential game-tying TD in the end zone.
Wade was drapped all over Bell’s back, primed to make a big play. The Play, as it turned out. Wade said afterwards that he gave the ball a little punch.
“I was thinking,” Wade said, “that if they get a touchdown, it can’t be on me. That’s the only thing that was going through my head.”
It was another big turning point for Wade — and the Penn State defense — but hardly the last.
“I’m going to campaign this for as long as I can campaign this: I feel like we’re the best defense in the country,” Wade says. “We are battle-tested and good teams always find a way to win. I have a lot of confidence in this defense, I have a lot of confidence in every single guy who is on the field.”
And, at long Lamont last, Wade has true confidence in himself as well.