Manny Diaz arrived in State College promising to add some vinegar to an already salty defense, and he’s delivered.

Folks within the industry are taking notice, including the former college head coaches who vote for the Broyles Award. They’ve made Diaz one of 15 semifinalists for the honor, the first Penn State staffer to get that far in the process.

There’s a proliferation of postseason awards for players and coaches, but this one carries some cachet. Though it usually goes to a coordinator, all assistant coaches are eligible. That means roughly 1,300 people begin each college football season with a shot. And, as awards go, it’s a good one to get. Most of the 26 previous winners have gone on to be head coaches, with recent examples including Steve Sarkisian, Brent Venables, Mike Locksley, Lincoln Riley and Pat Narduzzi.

Diaz, of course, has already been a Power 5 head coach, for 3 years at Miami before getting axed and moving on to Penn State to take over for outgoing defensive coordinator Brent Pry. Diaz also already has been a Broyles semifinalist, when he was the DC for the Hurricanes in 2017.

In a few days, on Nov. 29, the Broyles selection committee will narrow the field of 15 down to 5 finalists, who will be invited to Little Rock, Arkansas, for the Dec. 6 ceremony and trophy presentation. (The award honors former Razorbacks coach Frank Broyles.) Making that quintet would be a feather in the cap for Diaz and for Penn State.

Joe Moorhead never made the cut to 15 in his 2 seasons running Penn State’s offense, which in 2017 ranked 6th in the nation in scoring and 19th in yards per game. Pry’s bend-don’t-break units never earned him acclaim from the Broyles group, even though they finished top 10 in scoring defense in 2017, ’19 and ’21.

Even in a Big Ten loaded with killer defenses, Diaz’s dynamic young bunch strikes a nerve — along with opposing quarterbacks. With explosive freshman Abdul Carter leading the front 7, the Lions have been getting after people, especially since the calendar flipped to November.

In the main defensive categories, points and yards allowed, Penn State ranks 6th and 7th in the B1G. Among Diaz’s competition for the Broyles, there are 4 other B1G assistants. As you might guess, they’re all also defensive coordinators — for Michigan (Jesse Minter), Illinois (Ryan Walters), Iowa (Phil Parker) and Ohio State (Jim Knowles). Of the other 10 semifinalists, only 1 is a DC.

So, how is Diaz standing out even with a defense not quite as stingy as his peers’? Answer: With an almost unparalleled aggressive style that first took root in Week 3 against Auburn.

Penn State leads the Big Ten in sacks (33) and tackles for loss (88), ranking 10th and 5th nationally in those categories. Using a variety of blitzes, formations and stunts, Diaz has gotten sacks from 16 players and from all 3 levels of the defense. Carter, an emerging superstar with incredible athletic gifts, leads the way with 4.5. Sophomore transfer Chop Robison (4), true freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton (3) and Adisa Isaac (3) lead the defensive linemen. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown and corner Johnny Dixon each have 3.

Beyond the numbers, the players look like they’re having a blast playing this aggressive, seek-and-destroy style. They’ll aim to cap an incredibly fun season against Michigan State late Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium. With so much young talent, they’ll be making a statement not just for now and Diaz’s chances to win awards, but also for the future.

The Spartans seem like ideal victims for the defense’s final statement of the 2022 regular season. Michigan State will bring a depleted roster to Happy Valley thanks to injuries and suspensions. Its offense doesn’t run the ball well (12th in B1G), so quarterback Payton Thorne likely will have to put the ball up a lot. That hasn’t been a recipe for success against Penn State since Week 1 at Purdue, and 19-point underdog Michigan State isn’t likely to do what Taulia Tagovailoa and Maryland could not 2 weeks ago in a 30-0 shutout.

Carter not only leads Penn State in sacks, he ranks 2nd in tackles (48) and has 5 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles and 4 pass-breakups. He’s been more disruptive as a true freshman than Micah Parsons was in 2018. Parson had just 1.5 sacks, 5 hurries, 2 forced fumbles and no pass-breakups in his debut season at PSU. Diaz has unleashed Carter to a greater extent than Pry did with Parsons.

But it’s far from a 1-man show. Diaz’s defense goes 2 or 3 deep at every position, and 26 players have contributed to a TFL. Last week against Rutgers, a ridiculous 30 players had at least 1 tackle. Opposing offenses don’t know who’s coming, or from where.

Other than a second-half collapse at Michigan, the defense has hung in if not excelled. Both Purdue and Ohio State scored defensive touchdowns to bolster their point totals. In the 8 wins since the season-opening 35-31 victory over Purdue, Diaz’s defense has allowed just 10.5 points per game.

Whether he gets further affirmation from the Broyles voters or not, Diaz has had a special first season with the Nittany Lions. He’s put his name right back out there for the head coaching jobs that have or will come open. Ideally, he’s just getting started at Penn State and knows he can further prove himself and build his resume while helping James Franklin and the program reach that elusive “elite” level.

He has the defense close to that status, perhaps just a year away. Maybe 2023 should be the year he hoists the 75-pound bronze trophy that no Penn Stater has ever held.

I’m betting on Diaz and his defense for a strong finish, so here’s my final regular-season prediction:

Penn State 42, Michigan State 10