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Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz Cultivating Confidence In Pasadena

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has long been known as a hands-on coach. During the season, Diaz could frequently be seen putting his hands in the dirt alongside his players at practice.

At a Rose Bowl practice that was highlighted by liberal shouting and expletives Friday, Diaz’s intensity took a different shape. As players lined up to tackle teammates (and even special teams coordinator Stacy Collins) onto a crash pad, Diaz laughed and joked in between his critiques of form.

Throughout his first season in Happy Valley, Diaz has quickly established strong rapport with his players. As a result, his role as a mentor has paid dividends when it comes to players’ self-belief.

After the Nittany Lions suffered their 44-17 blowout loss to Michigan, head coach James Franklin cited size in the trenches as a key to the loss. Diaz’s assessment was slightly different.

“What the film said was: size was not an issue. What the film said against Michigan was: trust was an issue. We started playing slow because we didn’t believe in the guys around us,” Diaz said Friday. “And that was a hard talk.”

“We could continue to not trust each other and not believe that if you’re going to be to my right, then I’m going to be to your left and we’ll make it happen, but if we don’t then it’s going to look the same way,” Diaz continued.

The trust players have in Diaz facilitates a certain buy-in to his, at times, sharp feedback.

“Generally speaking, high achievers, they don’t want to be BS-ed, right? They want to be told,” Diaz said. “If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s not good, it’s not good. And truth be told, that’s really the way we coach all of our guys.”

With Penn State ending 2022 atop the Big Ten’s sack and red zone rankings, it’s hard to argue with the results elicited by the team’s brand new defensive coordinator.

Veterans like Ji’Ayir Brown, who emerged as an extra pass rusher, added new skills to their repertoire. According to Diaz, linebacker Curtis Jacobs was not comfortable playing in the box prior to the 2022 season, but pressed until seeing success.

“The first thing I’m proud of is that [Jacobs’] toughness was questioned,” Diaz said. “Not that he had not been tough on film, but playing out there at Sam [linebacker] is a different universe than coming to Will [linebacker]. So proud of him for that.”

Since the season’s start, Jacobs has blossomed as a versatile linebacker, filling multiple roles for the corps. The position group –– which Diaz said added “three elite linebackers” on Signing Day –– has allowed more flexible looks, especially with the rise of true freshman Abdul Carter.

In his inaugural campaign with the Nittany Lions, Carter largely lived up to the hype of his No. 11 jersey. Carter recorded 55 tackles, six and a half sacks, and two forced fumbles, en route to a second-team All-Big Ten recognition, but the linebacker’s accolades didn’t insulate him from Diaz’s prodding.

“I told [Carter], my job is to help him achieve greatness,” Diaz said. “I kinda almost put that in his face, like ‘you played well –– for a freshman.’ And is that it? Is this as good as it gets?”

To Diaz, belief is a linchpin of this year’s Rose Bowl, particularly against a formidable Pac-12 champion Utah team. Led by starting quarterback Cam Rising, who Diaz heaped ample praise upon, the Utes’ offense ranks No. 7 in scoring offense nationally.

“Football is not very complicated from the time that we were playing little league, right?” Diaz said. “The players want to believe. They want to believe they can win.”

“Utah has belief. They believe in their leader,” Diaz continued. “And why wouldn’t they? Because of the way that he plays the game, when they need a play…they’re gonna call his number.”

Despite January 2’s awaiting challenge, Diaz is confident his defense will impress in the Rose Bowl.

“They continue to work to be the best version of themselves and I think they would say that we still probably have our best performance out there,” Diaz said.

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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