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Athleticism, age at Pry’s disposal for Penn State

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry lost a lot from his unit from 2017. But he’s got plenty of replacements in place.

Brent Pry -- GETTY

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –Altoona native Brent Pry has been a part of the Penn State coaching staff since 2014 when he joined head coach James Franklin. Since then, Pry and the Nittany Lions have produced a multitude of NFL players such as Marcus Allen of the Steelers, Carl Nassib of the Browns, and Mike Hull of the Dolphins, to name a few.

And even with the NFL talent being produced in State College, the 2018 edition of the Penn State defense serves to be the most athletic defense in quite some time. Pry and company have been tasked with replacing linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith, defensive backs Troy ApkeAllen, Christian Campbell, and Grant Haley, as well as interior linemen Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran.

While all of those guys are off to the NFL, the guys replacing them are as good as, if not better, and more athletic than their former teammates. That athleticism and mix of experience and youth give Pry a plethora of layers to a defense that gave up 19.1-points per game in 2017.

If the Nittany Lions want to get back to the Big Ten Championship game, it will be up to Pry to dial up defenses that maximize the athleticism by taking advantage of mismatches. And with the quality depth on the defensive side of the ball, Pry should have no issues with keeping offenses off-balance and uncomfortable.

Here are some of the ways Pry and the Penn State defense can keep offenses guessing by him utilizing a mix of the youth, experience, and athleticism fat his disposal this fall.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Nittany Lions return all but Cothren and Cothran to a defensive line unit that could be considered the deepest and most experienced unit on that side of the ball.

Kevin Givens gives Pry options as a guy who can play both end and tackle, and when you couple that with an improved end in Shareef Miller (seen below), it could pay huge dividends come September.

Miller’s ability to get up field will only get better as he continues to get stronger and faster.

The defensive line unit, especially at end and in addition to the aforementioned Givens and Miller, gives Penn State a multitude of depth. Joining Miller on the end will be Yetur Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney and Shane Simmons.

Two ends who weren’t mentioned, Ryan Buchholz and Torrence Brown, both had their 2017 seasons disrupted by injuries. Buchholz went down after the first play against Ohio State and subsequently missed the next three games before playing against Maryland and Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. In the 10 games Buchholz played, he recorded a 18-tackles and two sacks.

Brown started the first three games of the 2017 season before being injured against Georgia State. In those three games, Brown had recorded eight tackles. The redshirt senior will be looking to return to 2016 form where he appeared in all 14 games and forced three fumbles while recording 33 tackles.

With athletic linebackers behind it, the defensive line should have no fear to get up field. Pry can use stunts and blitzes with the backers to get in the backfield against opponents which will help open things up for the rest of the defense to make plays.

LINEBACKERS

The linebacker room is the position group that has seen the most change this offseason as it lost its starting Mike, or middle linebacker, with Cabinda heading to the Oakland Raiders and Will, weak side linebacker, Brandon Smith off to camp with the Buffalo Bills.

This is where Pry has been most creative, as he’s moved former Sam linebacker Koa Farmer to the Will position and Cam Brown to Sam. Freshman Micah Parsons will take over the Mike position entering camp. Parsons comes to Penn State after being the top-ranked recruit in Pennsylvania in 2017.

The Harrisburg, Pa. native has been with the team since January and has impressed Pry with his competitiveness since stepping on campus.

“He is extremely competitive, he wants to be great, and he has the drive to reach his potential and then some,” Pry said following the annual Blue-White game. “Not just individually, he’s got a big vision. I think with some hard work and a year round commitment to it; I’m excited to see the direction he is going. He is a work in progress, but he is fun to coach and gives us everything he’s got right now.”

Farmer, a fifth-year seniorl, has developed into a physical specimen over the offseason as he’s grown into his 6-foot-1 frame. Playing the Will role will put him in the box more, which with his development, bodes well for the California native.

“Playing in the box, you’ve gotta be strong,” said Farmer. “You gotta be physical, I think your biggest asset is to be strong and to be physical,”

Being inside the box and playing on the boundary allows Farmer the opportunity to use his speed in the open field to make plays.

“You’re around the ball a lot more,” Farmer said. “You’re literally in the mix on every play. Especially as a faster guy on the boundary that’s your biggest asset. I just use my speed to my ability.”

With the athleticism of Parsons, the speed and physicality of Farmer and Brown on the strong side, Pry will have plenty of options when dialing up blitz packages. There will be growing pains for Parsons, but his raw ability and athleticism will go a long way in making up for the lack of experience.

SECONDARY

The secondary will be anchored by experienced corners John Reid and Amani Oruwariye. Reid enters the 2018 season healthy, while Oruwariye looks to back up a 2017 campaign that featured four interceptions and nine pass break ups.

After lining up at corner in 2017, Lamont Wade will move to safety, joining Nick Scott as the last lines of defense for the Nittany Lions.

With shut-down corners in Reid and Oruwariye flanking either side of Wade and Scott, the deepest parts of the field will be in good hands for Pry’s defensive unit. The quality secondary play last season helped the front seven for Penn State get into the backfield and limit big plays by opponents.

A strong secondary will allow Pry to be aggressive up front knowing more often than not, the secondary will be there for deep support should opponents get to the second level or beyond.

• It’s always been more than football at Penn State and last weekend that was in full effect as the football team held its 16th Annual Lift For Life event benefiting Uplifting Athletes and raising money for rare diseases. This year, student-athletes raised $93,685.14 for Uplifting Athletes. The Nittany Lions have raised over $1.4 million in the event’s 16-year history.

Lift for Life began in 2003 at Penn State and has grown to include 16 other colleges who raise money for Uplifting Athletes around the country. Founder Scott Shirley has been around for all 16 of the Lift for Life events held at Penn State and it all started with the idea to get the conversation started about rare diseases.

“The goal was to really start a conversation around the challenges rare disease patients face,” Shirley said prior to this year’s Lift for Life event at Holuba Hall. “Kidney cancer is one of 7,000 different rare diseases and they all have different treatment protocols, they’re all different, so they don’t benefit in that regard, but they do benefit from all having the same mental, emotional, and social experiences and that’s where can bring every body together and raise the causes as a platform nationally.”

• Only eight more Saturdays until college football begins.

• Only nine more Saturdays until Pitt and Penn State line up under the lights at Heinz Field.