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Young Defensive Backs Stand Out On Stellar Defense

The Penn State defensive front seven has received all the credit this season for anchoring one of the nation’s best defenses, and rightfully so. Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull spearhead a unit that ranks among the top four nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, and fewest first downs allowed.

But what about the pass defense? The Nittany Lion defensive backs have been every bit as good. Penn State ranks first among all 128 FBS programs in pass efficiency defense, limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 52 percent completion percentage and only six touchdowns against 15 interceptions.

What’s more, the pass defense has been strong with young players in the lineup. Safety Adrian Amos is the only senior in the secondary. In Saturday’s win over Temple, James Franklin opted to play three true freshmen defensive backs, with Grant Haley and Christian Campbell filling in for the injured Trevor Williams at corner alongside safety Marcus Allen, who made his fourth-straight start after Ryan Keiser’s rib injury forced him into action against Ohio State.

Against Temple, Campbell and Haley each recorded an interception, with Haley returning his pick 30 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to become the first true freshman to score a defensive touchdown since Paul Posluszny returned an interception for a score in 2003 against Indiana. Allen had a quiet day with only two tackles against the Owls, but is still seventh on the team with 34 stops, including a sack and two tackles for loss. In his first game as a starter against the Buckeyes, Allen recorded 11 tackles and two pass breakups, putting an end to any talk that he wasn’t ready before it even began.

Penn State is the second-youngest team in the nation and playing with a reduced number of scholarships, so it’s no surprise that young players are cracking the lineup. What’s been impressive is just how well they’re playing when their numbers are called.

“I like freshmen,” James Franklin said after the game on Saturday, peering up to the recruits in the luxury suite above the media room. “I like freshmen that come in and make plays for us. We’re going to play guys who prepare themselves physically and mentally.”

Franklin said he’s proud of the freshmen defensive backs, and complimented their play all year long as spot contributors before they were asked to take on a larger role. Having young players that started the season playing behind juniors and seniors be able to work their way into the lineup is a testament to their ability.

“Those guys have all the things you can’t necessarily teach,” Franklin said, referring to Haley and Campbell, two players who flipped their commitments from Vanderbilt to Penn State alongside their head coach. “They have the speed, the athleticism… The more guys you can find like that that also come from strong families and are good people and good students — we want as many of those guys as we can.”

The first-year head coach said he was on an elevator ride before the Temple game heading to the pregame meal with sophomore defensive tackle Parker Cothran, and asked the Alabama native if he ever imagined there would be a point where there would be three players from his home state on the team (Christian Campbell and freshman defensive end Torrence Brown are the other two), and that they would all play significant roles. While Brown has yet to see the playing field, Cothran has a half a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss to go alongside 10 tackles this season, and Campbell has one tackle for loss and two pass breakups in addition his first-career interception.

“Coach [Bob] Shoop does a great job preparing them,” Amos said of the new young talent he’s now surrounded by in the secondary. “They are playing with confidence, and the first couple of games they’ve had success early. That has given them confidence each and every game.”

“These guys aren’t freshmen anymore,” Mike Hull added. “It’s almost a full year they’ve been playing and we know they’re very athletic and very talented. They’re just going to keep getting better and better.”

Haley and Campbell began the year on the punt team, flying down the field and chasing down kick returners as gunners. Tackling ball carriers in open space is something Franklin thinks they both do well, and special teams gave them the opportunity to cut their teeth and make plays. Now on the defensive side of the ball, they’ve made a difference with their speed and ability to tackle, skills they’ve honed while earning their stripes on the punt team.

“Every time they made a play, their confidence built,” Franklin said. “I think that translated over to defense and special teams. A lot of things we’re asking them to do take advantage of the strengths they have right now.”

For a team that was supposed to be buried by sanctions, it’s nothing short of remarkable how its been able to build such a formidable top-tier defense. Penn State is deep on all three levels, and has two of the best players in the country in Zettel and Hull. Now Haley, Campbell, and Allen add depth to a secondary with veteran playmakers in Amos and Lucas.

According to Franklin, the impressive depth is something that will only continue to improve.

“We want to recruit guys that can play wide receiver or defensive back,” Franklin said. “Guys that are tough, fast, athletic, and intelligent.”

It’s been a small sample size, but the outstanding play of the trio of young defensive backs signals a bright future for the program.

About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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