Blue White Illustrated

May 2023

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 30 of 67

M A Y 2 0 2 3 31 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M O P I N I O N THOMAS FRANK CARR T F R A N K . C A R R @ O N 3 . C O M F or a defensive player, there's noth- ing like third-and-long. It's one of the few times in football that the defense can predict what is about to happen and, for once, have the advan- tage over the offense. For Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, it's also the time to dial up some of his most aggressive "mad sci- entist" concoctions. From formations in which every gap is covered with pass rushers to alignments featuring safe- ties playing middle linebacker, there's nothing Diaz won't try in his "Prowler" package. However, it's the players within the system that make Penn State's third- down defense sing. Take, for example, former safety Ji'Ayir "Tig" Brown. He was a catalyst for the defense last season and took full advantage of what Diaz can do with a player. While there isn't a position des- ignated the "prowler," Brown embodied the spirit of what Diaz wants to do. He was everywhere. "This time last year, we would not have known that Tig had the sort of flexible superpowers that he showed in our third-down package," Diaz said earlier this spring. To understand what Diaz can do with the Prowler package, it's useful to view it through the lens of what he did with Brown a year ago. It all starts with pressure. When coach James Franklin was asked to explain the basic structure of PSU's third-and-long defense, he started by talking about the three-down front known as the "Chaos" package. "We're able to bring a lot of people from a lot of different angles, trying to put pressure on the quarterback and make it difficult for the offense to de- termine who's coming and who's not," he said. Junior safety Jaylen Reed, one of the candidates to replace Brown, empha- sized blitzing when asked what that role in the defense requires. "You've got to know how to pass rush and blitz and be versatile," Reed said. "Tig was the most versatile safety we had. He can blitz, be an edge rusher and defend the pass." There was no safety in college foot- ball like Brown last year. He reached the quarterback 9.5 times (4.5 sacks, 5 hurries) and won 29.9 percent of his pass-rushing attempts according to Pro Football Focus, which was third among all safeties with at least 25 rush attempts. Not all of these stats are exclusive to third down, but it heavily influ- ences the numbers. Also, while pres- sure is where everything starts for the defense, Brown did much more than menace quarterbacks. "His instincts are through the roof, which makes him play faster and more proactively," Franklin said. "You need guys on third down specifically who have instincts and can see what's com- ing and jump routes and play fast, then have the ball skills to finish it." Brown's coverage numbers were ex- emplary. He led the team with 4 inter- ceptions and added 3 pass breakups. Now that he is off to the NFL, it's time to find another player to fill that role. While the Nittany Lions don't necessarily need to replace him with a safety, it's the most logical move. The player who takes over that spot should have the size and strength to win pass- rushing snaps and the coverage skills to play at every level of the defense. The way Brown played last year for Diaz has the returnees excited. "Now that Tig has done it, the guys love it, and they can see everybody wants to play his position on the Prowler, which is good because you want competition," Diaz said. While we've focused on safety here, this defense is all about versatility. For example, what if you have a linebacker who is an elite pass rusher? The pressure-heavy focus creates one-on-one matchups, which force the offense to make hard choices. Do you want to leave sophomore linebacker Abdul Carter against a running back? A ball hawk like redshirt sophomore safety Zakee Wheatley can also shine in this environment, and the defense has excellent foundational pieces up front, led by an elite edge-rushing unit. "I think what helps is that we're as good as we've been at defensive end," Franklin said. "We've got some guys who can rush the passer. I think we also do it at D-tackle, but we still have some questions there." No matter who replaces Brown, it will be exciting to see how Diaz uses the new strengths of his current roster to create more chaos. ■ Junior safety Jaylen Reed is hoping to play a role this fall in helping replace Ji'Ayir Brown, who excelled last season in the Lions' "Prowler" defense. PHOTO BY DANIEL ALTHOUSE PSU's Defense Looks To Go Back On The Prowl Upon Further Review

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