Pry sizes up defense coming out of spring practices
Young and old, and finding the right balance between the two, will consume Brent Pry’s days until the start of the Nittany Lions’ 2018 season.
On display Saturday afternoon in the Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium, the defense under Pry’s watch has both veterans with experience as well as raw athleticism from its newcomers.
Leading the first-team Blue squad with eight stops in four quarters of action, early enrollee linebacker Micah Parsons offered a preview of what might come this fall. So too did redshirt freshman linebacker Ellis Brooks, who finished with three tackles of his own, a conscientious effort of Penn State’s staff to get plenty of reps to its younger players.
Meanwhile, seasoned veterans like Nick Scott, John Reid, Kevin Givens, Ryan Buchholz, and Koa Farmer will be tasked with developing the entire group through the offseason months. Said Pry, “When we’re out of town recruiting, or we’re out of town at satellite camps, have those guys watch a lot of film together. They’ve got a chance to watch Bell, Nyeem, Cabinda and Mike Hull. We’ve got all that film put together for those guys, what we call ‘teach days.’ They can come in, sit down and watch a segment, isolate a certain call or isolate a certain technique and watch it done the right way. Watch it done at the highest level by some really good examples, so that is what we’ll look for this summer.”
Before jumping ahead, though, Pry spoke with reporters at length Saturday and offered a variety of insights into the defensive unit coming out of spring practices.
Let’s dive into some of those assessments for the Nittany Lions on the defensive side of the ball, here:
One of the biggest questions for the Nittany Lion defense heading into the 2018 season exists right at the point of attack.
With both Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran endeavoring on NFL careers, a combined 47 starts at defensive tackle go with them. In their stead, the Nittany Lions have two presumed starters returning in Givens and Robert Windsor, each of whom played in each of Penn State’s 13 games last season with Givens starting five.
Though Windsor dressed but did not play Saturday, and was limited throughout spring practice, Givens continued his ascent into a player the Nittany Lions will call upon to be an anchor of the defense next season. Named the Jim O’Hora Award Winner at halftime for his “loyalty, positive attitude, and constant improvement” through the spring, Givens has a big fan in Pry.
“You've got a guy that can play defensive end, he can play nose tackle, he can play three-technique, he can go into three-down and play the end spot. He can play the zero. And he makes plays,” said Pry. “He doesn't say a word. He works, he works, he works. Some of the guys we've pulled off, taken reps off them, but we've soaked him out there and he doesn't complain. He just works. He wants to be great. I can't say enough good things about him right now.”
Behind Givens and Windsor, other less experienced players are also being counted upon to step up next season.
With a system predicated on at least four, five or even six players working into a rotation at defensive tackle, Pry expressed his confidence and concerns for the candidates working behind the presumed starters this spring.
“I think there's a good group right there,” said Pry. “Fred Hansard is a twitched-up guy, good movements, good rush ability. Antonio Shelton has been maybe one of our more improved players on defense, big and strong. He's one of our stronger guys. He's learning the position, he's more and more accountable. Of course, Ellison Jordan wasn't out there this spring but we're excited about him, his movement and the way he plays the game. Damion Barber is a guy that is still kind of scratching the surface but he's grown tremendously with his size and strength. His whole body just took off. He looks like a Big Ten defensive tackle now. So there's a good group there.”
Further, said Pry, the likes of true freshmen Judge Culpepper, P.J. Mustipher and Aeneas Hawkins will all be called upon to come in and compete for playing time this summer. Finding a combination of players that will fill those roles and extend Penn State’s consistently strong presence in the middle is something Pry believes will come to fruition this fall.
For as much as Penn State has lost at linebacker in the form of senior Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen, having combined for 58 career starts between them, much attention this spring has been paid to newcomers at the position.
With senior Jake Cooper out on Saturday, seen on crutches on the sideline, fifth-year senior Koa Farmer, Jan Johnson, junior Cam Brown, and fourth-year junior Jarvis Miller will be looked upon to help develop first- and second-year players at the position. In total, the Nittany Lions have seven scholarship linebackers that will be in their true freshman, redshirt freshman, or redshirt sophomore seasons of eligibility in the fall. None will have taken a rep in a game at linebacker.
Whether or not some combination of those players including Charlie Katshir, Jesse Luketa, Micah Parsons, Ellis Brooks, Brelin Faison-Walden, Brailyn Franklin, and Dae’Lun Darien will see action in the fall isn’t up for debate. Certainly, some will, as evidenced Saturday with Blue team contributions from Parsons, Darien, and Brooks, plus a four-tackle day from Luketa on the White squad.
Asked to evaluate the progress of former five-star Parsons, maybe the most highly anticipated of Penn State’s early enrollees, Pry offered the cautious optimism that has accompanied the Harrisburg native throughout the spring.
“He's done a nice job. He's eager, he's a hard-worker. I think he's learned the Willy backer position, whereas 15 practices ago we couldn't have said that,” said Pry. “We didn't know what he'd be capable of, really. He's shown me that he can learn it, that there's improvement each and every practice with him. He's the first one asking questions about practice. He understands what's happening out there. He's still figuring it out as far as playing linebacker, but there was a lot of progress this spring.”
Similarly, Pry was asked to assess the progress of fellow true freshman linebacker Luketa. Acknowledging a slow start to the spring for Luketa, Pry said that the second half of spring practices were quite productive for the newcomer.
“The last half of spring, he made great strides. Opened my eyes that this guy is going to compete. He's going to be in the mix for playing time with the rest of these guys,” said Pry. “He's big, he's strong, he's very fluid, he's very composed out there right now. He kind of approaches the game like he's been here a year or two rather than somebody that should be getting ready for the prom.”
Lamont Wade knows the feeling.
A guy in the same position as both Parsons and Luketa at this time last year, the former Rivals.com five-star and No. 1-ranked corner in the Class of 2017 is getting ready for his second season of action with the Nittany Lions.
Moved to safety this spring, Wade was frequently involved on Saturday, making five stops and a forced fumble for the White team.
“The last few days, he's really got a better grasp of the safety position at this point,” said Pry. ”It was a tough transition, mid-stride from corner to safety. Coach Banks does a great job with those guys, but there's a lot to those positions. Lamont was just getting comfortable at corner, but with our needs and where we're at with depth we have at corner, we felt like let's give him a shot at safety and see if he can sure us up there a little bit.”
The question for Wade is whether or not the move will stick.
Crediting Wade’s physicality, explosiveness, and talent, Pry indicated that the experience at safety this spring was beneficial, but may not be something set in stone moving forward.
“We'll look at it in the offseason and see if he's going to be a corner, is he going to be at safety, but it was really good to see him get the work at safety,” said Pry.
While Scott has been a mainstay at Penn State each of the past three seasons, named a special teams captain last year and for the upcoming 2018 season, Taylor’s work was exclusively as a backup the last two years. Appearing in 25 games, Taylor has grown into a contributor that Pry has confidence in for the future.
“Garrett has really worked at his craft. He's a guy that kind of hung in the wings behind some pretty good players and has worked and worked. He's gotten faster. I did not think he had a great scrimmage today, but he had a really good spring,” said Pry. “Solid tackler, he's where he's supposed to be in the defense, he defends the leverage that's required; just a smart football player.
“He's a little bit of a field general out there. I think him and Nick Scott have developed a relationship where they work very well right now in that first group out there.”
That is not to say, however, that Taylor won’t face competition in preseason camp.
According to Pry, Taylor will have “his hands full” for the starting job, with the mentality carrying through the summer that the best players will play regardless of previous designations.
“There will be a good competition for that strong safety spot,” said Pry, naming Ayron Monroe, Wade, Scott, and Jonathan Sutherland all as possibilities. “We're going to find the best two and if that means Nick plays out at strong and somebody else is in the boundary. It's the same way at linebacker. I tell those guys, it doesn't matter where you're playing right now. Learn the position, learn the concepts, learn the traits, but ultimately you could end up somewhere else. If you're one of the top two or three at the position, we're going to get you on the field.”