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Competition Fueling Penn State’s Defense Under Manny Diaz

One of the first things you’ll notice about Penn State football defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is how hands-on he is.

Just a few weeks after his hiring was announced, Diaz donned blue and white on the sideline of the Outback Bowl to support and guide his players-to-be. He gets down on his hands and knees at practice to run drills, tossing balls into the air and donning cleats to operate the JUGS machine.

But, now that training camp is officially underway, Diaz is getting his hands dirty on the personnel side of things, too. At the Nittany Lions’ Saturday media day, depth was a major theme. Retooled offensive skill positions and an abundance of options in the secondary and along the defensive line bode well for the season’s general outlook, but some, as James Franklin put it, “question marks” still remain. 

The biggest of these question marks is likely at linebacker, and more specifically, at middle linebacker. For Diaz, who also serves as Penn State’s linebackers coach, this assessment puts a chip on his guys’ shoulders.

“They all signed to come to LBU. They don’t like being labeled the question of our defense,” he said. “I understand they have to prove it…they’re reminded rather daily in settings like this that they’re referred to as a giant question mark. They weren’t recruited to be a question mark.” 

The battle at middle linebacker is now between redshirt freshman Kobe King and sophomore Tyler Elsdon. True freshman Keon Wylie also started at the position, but Franklin quipped that it’s now a “legitimate competition” between King and Elsdon.

They’re both different players and relatively inexperienced, fighting to be named the leader or even “quarterback” of the defense. Although he’s been doing yoga and flexibility work over the offseason, King described himself as more of a physical player than Elsdon, who he said plays with more “finesse.”

The two budding stars aren’t as worried about the “question mark” status as Diaz. They get along well on and off the field, and the competition is fueling their work ethic in training camp.

“I think it’s a question mark because there still is a competition going on…” King said. “We came up together and built up each other, so we’re both front runners [for the job] now.” 

“The competition between me and Kobe has really pushed us because we can’t really fall behind,” Elsdon added. “Competition really helps you grow. When people have doubts, when people have questions, it kinda creates a more hotter, burning fire.”

At the end of the day, competition at middle linebacker is a good thing for Penn State. The position is a question mark not due to a lack of talent, but rather an abundance of talent. Diaz said they didn’t add a linebacker through the transfer portal because there were no options that improved their team. Chop Robinson came in from Maryland, but he’ll operate as more of a 4-3 defensive end in Penn State’s scheme than the 3-4 outside linebacker he was in College Park.

Besides, if the competition is so close, that means Diaz will have more depth to work with throughout the season. The gap between MLB1 and MLB2 could be nearly seamless if fatigue sets in or the injury bug comes back to bite the starter.

Middle linebacker isn’t the only spot on the defense there’s competition, either. It’s to be determined who will play next to Ji’Ayir Brown at safety. Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King are quite the talented duo at cornerback, but there’s still plenty of competition brewing thanks to Penn State’s love of nickel and dime packages.

Elsdon said Diaz came in and wiped the slate clean. There was no depth chart and the defensive coordinator started evaluating things from the ground up. South Carolina transfer defensive back Johnny Dixon is a guy whose name kept popping up. He’ll be in the mix with Daequan Hardy for that nickel corner spot. The emergence of Dixon and other less-experienced players can only be a good thing for Penn State.

 “It’s really important for us,” Franklin said. “Not only in creating depth but also guys that maybe people have pegged in as the starters are either being pushed to improve their game, to keep their starting job, or could be replaced. And that’s kind of across the board.”

Depth seems to be a hallmark of these 2022 Nittany Lions. Better contingency plans, less ego, and more development were themes at media day. There seems to be an abundance of talent, and Franklin, Diaz, and Co. can only hope that pushes the team to be better as a collective.

Penn State tumbled from 5-0 to finish 7-6 last year. Yes, there were outside factors, but complacency must have come into play. So, this year, the Nittany Lions are retooling their attitude in training camp, and the slew of position battles can only help.

“If you get recruited to Penn State, you’re probably the best player on your team in high school. Truth be told, when you’re the best player, you probably don’t have to bring it every day. Because you’re the best player. You’re gonna play no matter what,” Diaz said. “So, it’s very hard usually for young freshmen to have the maturity understand — I’ve got to bring my best every day during training camp.”

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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