Underrated Penn State Secondary Combines Youth And Experience To Find Success
The talented members of Penn State’s defensive backfield sometimes get overshadowed by the gaudy production of their teammates along the defensive line, and rightfully so. It’s usually a good thing if a team’s secondary flies under the radar because that means the unit is largely doing its job.
No longer are the Nittany Lion defensive backs labeled as a liability to an otherwise stout defense, though. This bunch can ball with the best of them. Led by seniors Jordan Lucas (New Rochelle, N.Y.) and Trevor Williams (Baltimore, Md.), the 2015 secondary boasts a rare blend of veteran presence and young potential. This group could arguably find itself in the same conversation as the legendary 2005 quartet of Alan Zemaitis, Anwar Phillips, Calvin Lowry, and Chris Harrell, which is really saying something.
Penn State currently ranks tenth among Division I programs in passing yards allowed, according to NCAA Team Statistics. To put that number into perspective, perennial powerhouse Alabama, who routinely churns out NFL defensive backs, sits in 41st place.
Numbers certainly don’t mean everything, but they can be a helpful tool to gauge a team’s progress. Here are a few more to digest:
Lucas and sophomore safety Marcus Allen are third and fourth on the team with 49 and 47 total tackles respectively through eight games. Only the hard-hitting Jason Cabinda and author of the magnificent 71-yard scoop and score against San Diego State, Austin Johnson, have tallied more.
Lucas and Allen combine to form the most fearsome safety duo to don the blue and white in quite some time. Lucas, who made the move from cornerback to strong safety heading into this season, occasionally lines up in Bob Shoop’s “STAR” role, allowing him to infuse run-stopping skills in the box without sacrificing speed.
Allen also loves to lay the wood, but sometimes it sets the Upper Marlboro, Md. native up for a missed tackle if he doesn’t wrap up. However, the 6-foot-2, 209-pounder, built like Seattle Seahawks star Kam Chancellor, did an impressive job of finishing the play in the Nittany Lions’ 31-30 win over Maryland this past Saturday. Allen stepped up against his home state Terps with nine tackles, a textbook sack, and a crucial fumble recovery.
One knock on Penn State’s secondary last fall, specifically Terry Smith‘s corners, was the fact that they produced only four of the defense’s 16 interceptions. Williams, playing at home in Charm City, and sophomore Grant Haley provided two of the team’s three picks last weekend, with redshirt junior safety Malik Golden‘s game-winner rounding out the afternoon.
Haley and true freshman corner John Reid are currently tied for first place on the defense with two interceptions apiece. Reid picked up the playbook remarkably fast and started his first two college contests, as an injury kept Haley sidelined. Now backing up the Atlanta speedster, Reid has been able to step in and make plays while also learning from his veteran teammates.
But Reid and Haley aren’t the only young guns flashing brilliance on Saturdays. Sophomore Christian Campbell (Phenix City, Ala.) committed to Penn State before ever visiting University Park, showing the trust he has in the coaching staff. James Franklin saw enough from Campbell during his true freshman campaign to award the quick corner special teams reps at gunner and even some action on defense. Campbell has registered a solid 16 tackles, two pass breakups, and two passes defended thus far.
Like Campbell, sophomore Troy Apke (Mt. Lebanon, Pa.), who backs up Allen at free safety, also made his debut as a true freshman after Ryan Keiser went down with a season-ending injury. Apke has seen plenty of time this season, recording 18 tackles and a forced fumble. Expect Apke to push for one of the starting spots next fall.
And if all of this isn’t enough to make the most skeptical Nittany Lion fan grin, a plethora of talented youngsters wait in the wings.
Highly-touted cornerback Garrett Taylor is in the midst of his redshirt season, but the Richmond, Va. native boasts superior athleticism and cover skills. Taylor could potentially grow into a safety at some point, but for now he locks down the hash marks in practice. A trio of safeties are also turning heads behind the scenes during their first year with the program. Ayron Monroe, Jarvis Miller, and John Petrishen each bring something different to the table and will factor into the playing time discussion this off-season.
Plus, looking forward to next summer, Penn State’s fourth-ranked 2016 recruiting class, according to 247Sports, features a bevy of incoming playmakers. Lavert Hill and Zechariah McPhearson (younger brother of Nittany Lion wideout Josh McPhearson) are two of the nation’s most sought-after corners. Penn State legacy and safety commit Andrew Pryts, whose father Ed Pryts played linebacker for Joe Paterno, is setting records on both sides of the ball for Hickory High School in Hermitage, Pa.
Penn State’s secondary is already a team strength, but this unit could ultimately grow into the Big Ten’s best before long.