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New Penn State defensive line coach expecting big things from Imhotep Charter’s Shaka Toney

Toney, a fifth-year senior from West Philadelphia, is the most experienced defensive end returning. He had 6 1/2 sacks and eight tackles for loss last season.

Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney (18) sacks Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer  on Oct. 5, 2019.
Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney (18) sacks Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer on Oct. 5, 2019.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

When John Scott Jr. was hired as Penn State’s new defensive line coach on Feb. 8, he had no idea that he’d have barely five weeks to learn about the players under his charge before the campus would be shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak.

However, the short window gave Scott more than enough time to get acquainted with defensive end Shaka Toney, the top returnee along his line, and realize that he’s a guy on whom to rely for production and leadership.

“The first time I met Shaka, I was impressed at how good of a teammate he is, how connected he is with the guys,” Scott said last week of the fifth-year senior from West Philadelphia and Imhotep Charter. “When he walks in that room, it’s like all the guys look up to Shaka because of the way he’s played.

“He cares deeply about his teammates. His teammates look up to him. He can have an unbelievable presence in the meeting room because his teammates believe in him. So I think from that aspect, he’s a veteran guy that has played a lot of good ball. He’s very knowledgeable about the game. He’s very knowledgeable about how to do certain things and the guys look up to that.”

Toney finished 2019 with 6½ sacks (second on the team), eight tackles for losses (third), and five quarterback hurries (third), and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in the coaches’ voting. In his first season as a starter, he was on the field for the defense’s first snap in all 13 games. His three-year career totals read 15½ sacks and 22 tackles for losses.

Toney, 22, considered giving up his final season of eligibility and declaring for the NFL draft, saying before the Cotton Bowl that he had revised a pros-and-cons list “three or four times.” But he decided to return and keep working toward his degree in rehabilitation and human services.

He will be counted on to lead a talented but young group at the position. Other than Toney and fifth-year senior Shane Simmons, no other defensive end has more than one season of game experience.

“I think his presence for the young guys can be really good. He has some strong leadership qualities,” Scott said. “He has the capability to grab those young guys that are still trying to figure it out and lead them down the direction and the vision that Coach [James] Franklin has set for this football team. He has the ability to do that. Those young guys will listen to him. So he’ll have a positive voice.”

Franklin had four vacancies to fill on his staff going into 2020, and Scott was the last to be hired. Scott replaced Sean Spencer, the popular assistant who came with Franklin from Vanderbilt and made a significant contribution to a defense that posted 40 or more sacks for five consecutive seasons.

Scott, who is in his 20th year of coaching since graduating from Western Carolina, began his Penn State tenure by connecting with the guys in the defensive line room, especially leaders such as Toney.

“You’ve got to establish a relationship,” he said, “and I think it’s a bonus, or a huge plus, when you can establish that with who the guys perceive to be the leader of the room or the leader of your group. I think you have to have a good relationship with that guy.

“So I think when you’re able to establish a good relationship with someone the guys look up to, I think that only helps you as a coach in the room and it helps the other guys to buy in and kind of follow along too. That’s a critical piece.”

Of course, there is no way of knowing when players and coaches will be able to get back together in the Lasch Football Building. Scott said he was able to learn about his players during winter workouts, and while he has yet to see them live in pads, he has watched tape of their play last season and said, “I’m pretty excited.”

That includes what he has seen of Toney and his belief that “his ceiling can be pretty high for us.”

“I think Shaka can have a great year,” he said. “He’s got to just continue to work at his craft. That’s one of the things that we talk about, everybody working at your craft and continuing to get better. But he can have a real impact for our defense just with his leadership capabilities.”