Penn State likes to rotate a lot of players on defense. Many of them are young, with 20 of the 33 players listed on the three-deep depth chart currently in their freshmen and sophomore seasons.
One wouldn’t think a team with this type of youth could put up the crazy numbers that have been posted by the seventh-ranked Lions through six games -- an average of 8.2 points allowed per game (second in FBS) along with averages of 53.8 rush yards (third) and 259.7 total yards (fourth)
But it’s the old men of the defense, four fifth-year seniors -- cornerback John Reid, safety Garrett Taylor, tackle Robert Windsor and linebacker Jan Johnson -- who have provided the experience and leadership that keeps everyone grounded and focused.
“Those guys have been fantastic,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “There’s so much maturity.
“John and Garrett and Jan and Rob, they’ve seen a lot, and there’s no substitute for that. The experience they’ve gained not just as players on the field but players in this program, the adversity and the different situations they’ve been through, there’s so much knowledge there, and they’re such great young men, just embody everything that we want for our Penn State student-athletes.”
Reid entered Penn State after graduating from St. Joseph’s Prep, joining Taylor, Windsor and Johnson in the freshman class of 2015 when the Nittany Lions still were trying to get their scholarship numbers up following NCAA sanctions. Johnson was a member of the 2015-16 wrestling team as a freshman while redshirting in football.
Taylor and Windsor also redshirted their freshman seasons, while Reid, who started his first game as a freshman against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field, sat out 2017 while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered during spring football.
Taylor said the key to the team’s success is making sure everyone stays consistent with their performance from day to day.
“I think we’ve just been super consistent,” he said. “Stats and individual recognition isn’t something that this team is really worried about. So I think guys like myself, Jan, John Reid, Rob, we really focus on setting the example and making sure we’re working hard in practice and then going out there and being consistent on Saturdays.
“I think obviously you’ve got guys with a lot of talent, and they’re getting their recognition, which is great. But at the end of the day if we’re not winning or we’re not playing well on defense, that’s an issue. So I think that’s the only thing we’re really worried about. That’s what we’re focused on, and we’re playing well, so we’re going to keep that up.”
Pry said the competition for positions on the defense going into the season was the best he’s ever seen given the work ethic and commitment level of the players. He said his players, especially the younger ones, have handled the competition well.
“I think there’s quality depth,” he said. “Some of it’s a little younger than maybe you’d want, but there’s a real maturity about this group and how they go about things, and they’ve done a pretty nice job of rolling those young guys in and requiring the expectations be the same in preparation, work ethic, practice habits, those types of things.”
The Nittany Lions face one of their biggest challenges Saturday night when Michigan visits Beaver Stadium for the annual “Whiteout” game. They battled a physical Iowa team in last week’s 17-12 win and will face a similar style in the Wolverines.
Pry knows his players will be ready, particularly his quartet of veterans.