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Penn State’s defense focuses on tackling, depth

Missed tackles and depth issues hurt the Nittany Lions in their loss to Ohio State, but coordinator Brent Pry says the defense is making progress.

Penn State teammates Robert Windsor (54) and Micah Parsons (11) tacklling Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Penn State teammates Robert Windsor (54) and Micah Parsons (11) tacklling Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

When you hear someone who follows college football complain that tackling is a "lost art" these days, you might or might not nod your head in agreement. But when you hear it from a defensive coordinator of a Top 10 team, that really gets your attention.

Penn State has struggled with missed tackles throughout the season, a fault caught in the national spotlight during the fourth quarter of Ohio State's come-from-behind win at Beaver Stadium nearly two weeks ago.

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry said tackling is a problem for many programs, not just the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions. But that doesn't make him feel any better.

"You work on tackling each week," Pry said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. "That's every day in preseason camp. You do some sort of tackling on Tuesdays during the season, do some sort of tackling on Wednesdays. There's only so much banging you can do. So, a lot of it is pad level and good body position.

"I think if you watch across college football, tackling's about a lost art, unfortunately."

The key, Pry said, is forcing the ball carriers into smaller spaces by "keeping the ball inside your edge guys.

"Any time you watch any college football games on Saturday, if the ball gets outside and on the perimeter, outside your force players, it makes tackling a problem; angles are bad," he said. "We've got to do a better job there of keeping the thing bottled up, and making the tackles a little more high-percentage."

With Saturday's game against Michigan State coming up, the statistics for the Penn State defense are a mixed bag. The Lions are in the middle of the Big Ten pack in points allowed (21.0 per game) and total defense (354.4 yards per game). They rank third in the conference against the pass but 10th against the run. The unit is strong in the red zone and stopping opponents on third down.

Some missed tackles against the Buckeyes might have been a result of fatigue. Head coach James Franklin said that he went with his first team for much of the fourth quarter and that his guys ran out of gas. Pry said that going into the game, there was a "conscientious effort" to play the starters more.

"At the same time, where's the balance?" Pry said. "Where do you find the right place to play a few guys? It's one of those things that you wish and you hope that you had enough depth and you trusted it enough that you're going to roll guys in."

The Nittany Lions substituted more liberally in their early games, routs of Pittsburgh, Kent State and Illinois. But they have not developed the kind of quality depth that they had hoped would have come along a little more quickly.

Two pieces have been added on the defensive line. Redshirt freshman C.J. Thorpe was moved from offensive tackle to defensive tackle and played some snaps against Ohio State. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Shane Simmons has recovered from a training-camp injury and will see his first action of the season Saturday.

The starting linebackers have played well, and true freshman Micah Parsons has seen plenty of time off the bench. But Pry is concerned about the pass-coverage skills of some of his backup linebackers and noted that he wants to see his unit be more effective in reaching the quarterback on blitzes.

"We don't have quite the experienced bunch we had," Pry said of the defense, "but I think each week we've gotten closer. There's been moments, but at the same time, there's been some areas where we need to continue to get better each week, and we've done that. We're kind of pleased with the progress."