Blue White Illustrated

January 2022

Penn State Sports Magazine

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6 J A N U A R Y 2 0 2 2 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M I f ever there was a window for Penn State head coach James Franklin to make dramatic changes to the way his program approaches the defensive side of the ball, this was it. With the ink still drying on Franklin's new 10-year contract extension, long- time defensive coordinator Brent Pry departed to become the head coach at Virginia Tech shortly after the conclu- sion of the 2021 regular season. Also, a massive chunk of the star power on the defensive side of the ball that helped the Nittany Lions become a top-10 scoring defense will depart for the pros. It was a moment that cried out for transition, if transition was the desired outcome. Franklin's choice to hire for- mer Miami (Fla.) head coach Manny Diaz to replace Pry — and his words thereafter — told us that Penn State's head man wanted the opposite. "We keep an ongoing list of guys who maybe [could] fit different roles within our organization," Franklin said. "And then in the time that we've been able to interact over the years, there was a lot of exchanging ideas between the defensive staffs really over a long period of time. "When you really start to get into this and do more deep dives in terms of information and fit, in terms of scheme, [you find that] you're not starting all over with a completely different scheme." The latter was an important consid- eration, he said, because "current play- ers on your roster have some concerns and question marks, and then obviously the recruits as well." Franklin made it clear: He wanted the most experienced, successful defensive coordinator he could appoint, so long as that coordinator operated with a scheme that wouldn't force Penn State to start from scratch on its defensive structure. It's a logical approach at the most basic level. Penn State's defense was phenomenal in 2021. The Nittany Lions allowed 16.8 points per game to rank seventh in the country. They created 19 takeaways. They fielded the nation's best red zone defense, allowing scores on only 67 percent of opponents' op- portunities. It was a unit that supported the weight of an inefficient offense. A longtime defensive coordinator who spent the past four seasons as head coach at Miami, Diaz made it clear that he values the same principles as Frank- lin on the defensive side of the ball. Turnover creation is crucial, and pre- venting explosive plays is a top priority. "What you can see is, in James' time as a head coach, his defensive phi- losophy, matched by people who have worked with him, has been very ag- gressive and very multiple," Diaz said. "When we spoke about what we envi- sioned moving forward, I think that's why it made sense." It made sense from a recruiting point of view as well. Diaz's hire was an- nounced the weekend before the De- cember signing period, in which Penn State inked a class that placed No. 7 nationally in the On3 Consensus rank- ings. Included in that class is blue-chip de- fensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton, along with several four-star defensive pros- pects such as cornerback Cam Miller and linebacker Abdul Carter. Making a sweeping alteration with his defensive coordinator hire would have been risky for Franklin as he looked to finalize that group of players. Diaz certainly has some recruiting chops. He signed two five-star defen- sive prospects to play for the Hurricanes during his time as a head coach and gives the Nittany Lions another pres- ence in the talent-rich state of Florida. "I'm extremely excited to have coach Manny Diaz as our defensive coordina- tor," said Zane Durant, a 2022 defensive tackle commit and Florida native. "The schemes that they ran in Miami not only fit my mold but our entire 2022 defen- sive commits' mold." Certainly, this isn't all to say that ev- erything will be the same under Diaz's watch. Pry and Diaz are different people, and there are some key differences in their approach to the game. Diaz's defenses at Miami, for ex- ample, tended to be much more ag- gressive at the line of scrimmage. The Hurricanes were among the nation's top 35 teams in sacks during every season of his tenure as head coach and defensive coordinator. Miami led the country in sacks per game against FBS opponents in 2017. Penn State's defense, on the other hand, had intentionally kept its pass rush somewhat handcuffed over the past two seasons, opting instead to con- tain opposing quarterbacks better. There will be a sort of philosophical osmosis on the defensive side of the ball between Diaz and Franklin, as there al- ways is after this kind of change. Make no mistake, though. The objec- tive here was to minimize change. For Franklin and Penn State, that was the right approach. ■ O P I N I O N DAVID ECKERT davidecker Brent Pry established a template that new coordinator Manny Diaz will look to follow as he takes charge of the Nittany Lions' defense. PHOTO BY RYAN SNYDER Continuity Will Be Key To Penn State's Defensive Fortunes JUDGMENT CALL

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