STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The Penn State football website archives listed the weight of defensive end Shaka Toney as 195 pounds when he arrived on campus from West Philadelphia in the summer of 2016 to begin his college career.
“I was thinking it was 187,” Toney recalled at Saturday’s media day. “Or maybe it was 176. Either or.”
The mission to gain weight and strength was a long and taxing one. After redshirting his first year, Toney played mostly as a pass-rush specialist the next two seasons, using his speed and quickness to register nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss, including a 2018 game at Indiana in which he had four sacks in the fourth quarter.
Now, with a new season approaching, Toney wants to do more. He is up to 242 pounds and has impressed the defensive coaches enough to be in the mix for a starting job and to be a three-down lineman, not just someone in on passing situations.
“Everybody wants to talk about Shaka as a specific-down guy,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “I don’t see that anymore. He’s always understood leverage very well. Now that he’s put some weight on and some strength and has a little more experience on early downs, I think he’s got a chance to be a complete end this year, absolutely.”
Toney, a graduate of Imhotep Institute Charter High School, knows he has to put the work in.
“I’m here to compete, and I’ve got to earn it,” he said. “I’m prepared. Whatever they need, I’m going to do. I think I’m playing good football. The competition in our defensive end room is making everybody’s game elevated to a new level.”
Toney called his sustained weight gain “a challenge, but I think I handled it well.” He had company his first year in linebacker Cam Brown, who was in the same recruiting class.
“Cam and me were both guys that had to gain weight,” Toney said. “In the spring, we were just feeding off each other as far as, we’re going to cook, meal prep, and handling those things, because this guy is my brother. I really wanted to get to that pinnacle where I needed to be as far as where my weight needed to go.”
One example of Toney’s growth and maturity is his emergence as a leader of the defense. Head coach James Franklin called him “one of the great friends and teammates on the team for everybody.
“He’s the guy that they all seem to go to with issues or concerns or things or advice. He’s obviously got a strong voice,” Franklin said.
All-Big Ten defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos agreed.
“He’s a great team leader for us,” the junior said. “He’s always there to support us, and he’s just real positive.”
Toney said he appreciated having Shareef Miller as his big brother before the George Washington High School graduate left for the NFL and the Eagles, and now he has taken over that role.
“I’ve always been somebody who’s tried to be there for people,” he said. “I know what it’s like to deal with things and be on your own, having to go through certain things on your own. You should always have somebody to be able to talk to.
“College is tough, there’s trials and tribulations, you’re going to have highs, you’re going to have lows. But I just try to get everybody to stay even-keeled and understand that you’ve always got a brother. Whenever you need something, just call me.”
A role model for Toney has been defensive line coach Sean Spencer, whom he called “a man I look up to” in the absence of his father, Anthony, who passed away when Shaka was 2.
“He taught me ... the game of football,” Toney said. “I really believe the smarter you are, the better you can play. The knowledge that he’s taught me, I can carry it to anywhere I want to go, whether it’s coaching or working a normal desk job. He just taught me how to be a leader, how to handle myself, how to be a professional no matter what it is.”
Spencer is excited about Toney’s potential this season.