Unfazed By Adversity, Penn State’s Defense Continues To Grow
It’s players like newly-minted outside linebacker Koa Farmer who embody the heart and soul of this gritty Penn State defense. Thinking back to the spring and summer, it wasn’t supposed to go like this.
The Lions felt confident that its talented trio of linebackers in Jason Cabinda, Nyeem Wartman-White, and Brandon Bell, could be one of the best in the nation. On paper, it seemed destined to happen. Except when things went off script. Players like Koa Farmer, who’d never played defense prior to joining the Nittany Lions, is forced to start on the team’s front seven. It’s easy to write this unit off — on paper.
“I almost lost my mind,” Farmer said of his second half forced fumble. “I almost took off my helmet but I would’ve gotten a penalty, so I took it off on the sideline. What a moment.” Farmer’s excitement encapsulates the overriding theme of this unit — determined, young, and teeming with energy. He played like a man who’s played the position all his life. Sure, the road wasn’t easy, but Farmer — donning a handmade ti leaf lei sent by his mother to ward evil spirits — weathered the storm. “It’s been tough considering I’ve never played defense before,” Farmer said. “But as soon as I got the hang of just playing defense period — linebacker has some safety aspects — I’m having more fun. It feels amazing to have this opportunity.”
Linebacker Brandon Smith is no different. Nobody knew his name prior to Temple until he was forced into action after Jan Johnson went down with a season-ending injury. Plenty wrote off the abilities of Smith, instead focusing on exterior details like past playing experience, etc. But, like Farmer, Smith just played his game.
Life can be funny sometimes; strange occurrences happen seemingly out of nowhere. But Smith’s 14 tackle, one interception performance — a new career high- against a team known for its rushing prowess has become something of a norm instead of an anomaly. All year, James Franklin’s preached “next man up.” Instead of merely filling a role, players like Smith and Farmer have become physical representations of the phrase. “A lot of guys are preparing like they’re going to play,” Smith said. “A lot of guys are playing this year, and I think that’s been key. Maybe you don’t get as many reps during the week as you’d like, but film study has been so important.”
In preparing like starters, players like Smith, who prior to bring forced into action wouldn’t receive typical starting reps, relied on the little things — namely film study — to ensure he was prepared each week. Just in case. “A couple guys met on Thursday together to watch film,” Smith said. “Just being ready and visualizing what your job is has made a huge difference.”
You can’t teach an element like preparation — it’s innate. Players who want to be prepared have made the effort to put in the work; Brandon Smith doesn’t register such a head-turning game without preparing down to each small detail. If the Lions are to continue riding this admittedly unexpected wave of success, the off-field work in the film room might propel this team to achieve something special.
I touched on becoming a believer again last week. This week feels no different, if not better. My belief isn’t blind faith; over the last two weeks, unheralded players have made their presence felt — and the end result is a direct product of that.
This team has two weeks to prepare for its biggest test of the season in No. 2 Ohio State. Hopefully, Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell can return to the lineup. But they’re merely two pieces of an 11-man puzzle; if the Lions are to take down goliath, it needs players like Smith and Farmer to play like the starters they are.
Time will tell, but there’s a palpable vibe about this team.