Coach Chaos Brings Order to Penn State’s Defensive Line

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer has high expectations for the unit he coaches.

“You have to be number one in everything that you do,” the 33-year old former Clarion University safety said. “I expect that out of them.”

His Nittany Lions are living up to his lofty goals. They rank third nationally in total defense, allowing less than 270 yards a game. They ranked eighth nationally in third down defense, giving up hardly three conversions in every ten attempts. His defensive line’s 26 sacks rank third in the Big Ten, and Penn State’s tackles for losses rank second in the conference.

While much of Penn State’s defensive credit has been attributed to the Mike Hull-led linebacker corps and the masterful plans of coordinator Bob Shoop, Spencer, affectionately called “Coach Chaos” for his energy and enthusiasm, has not-so-quietly built one of the nation’s best defensive lines.

“Coach Chaos is a great coach, he gets us going every day,” said senior defensive end Brad Bars. “He always gets everyone in the room incorporated.”

Incorporating the entire room is a central part of Spencer’s defensive philosophy. The second-string defensive line, of which Bars is normally a part, often sees ample playing time.

“[Coach James Franklin, Shoop, and I] believe having fresh guys in there is better than having guys who are tired and wilted,” Spencer said.

It seems to be working. Penn State has faced, and contained, dual-threat quarterbacks in each of the past three games, a trend that will continue with Temple’s shifty P.J. Walker. Spencer said that having fresh legs on the line has helped stop these elusive passers. He also said the stellar linebacker play has helped, and that this mutual respect has created an entirely united defense.

For example, Bars and Hull, who are also roommates, went on a fishing trip earlier this year. Although Bars said he had to double-strap his seatbelt and use pillows as extra airbags in fear of Hull’s driving, those experiences have been rewarding. “We’ve become so close,” he said.

Back in State College, Spencer is hard to miss at practice. He’s extremely animated, and is always hollering and jumping around. He loves giving players nicknames, his favorite of which is for reserve defensive tackle Antoine White, who he affectionately has named Salt. “We call him the Salt Shaker because every time he rushes, his entire body goes into convulsions like a salt shaker,” Spencer explained.

That’s all more of Spencer’s defensive motto: keeping it lighthearted when the situation allows, but bringing intensity when things go awry.

“I do football from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. five days a week,” said Spencer. “There’s a standard for me. We’re going to be on time for meetings, on time for practices… If you break the standard, there’s going to be a result.”

“They know when I’m pissed off,” he added.

Spencer said his line has also experienced success because his junior cornerstones, Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes, have made great strides since the season kicked off.

Zettel was shifted from end to tackle, a difficult positional move that Spencer said Zettel has embraced. “His attitude was, ‘I want to master that position,'” Spencer said. Spencer suggested Barnes played too analytically when he first started coaching the defensive end. Now, he’s quickly analyzing the play and immediately reacting.

The reemergence of Bars, who missed 2013 with a ruptured Achilles tendon, has also helped to provide depth to a line that Spencer said was the most “deep and talented” that he’s ever coached. “He didn’t have the spring, he never got that contact, he never got that shock,” said Spencer. “Now he’s developed confidence in himself. He’s a guy that’s peaking at the right time of the year.”

It appears that, on least on the defensive side of the ball, the players and coaches have a mutual admiration for each other that has produced applaudable results. With three games left in the season, it all seems to be clicking at the right time.

“It’s been a great year,” said Bars. “These coaches are really great.”

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Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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