Penn State football: New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz opens the curtain on the freak show
This is not your grandfather’s Penn State defense. It’s not your father’s. Shoot, it’s not even your older brother’s or sister’s.
And it’s definitely not Brent Pry’s, no offense to the former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator.
Manny Diaz brings a style all his own, one he embodies with his tightly cropped, slicked back dark hair and trim physique. A bundle of energy, in a hurry, with the aerodynamics to move through space with a minimum of drag. And make his presence felt upon arrival.
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“He looked like he was ready to ball,” safety Ji’Ayir Brown said in recounting Diaz’s first meeting with his new charges.
Three games into his tenure, Diaz has his deep group of freakish, hybrid athletes ready to ball. After a mild first 2 games, the former head coach of the Miami Hurricanes took the freak show on the road and shook up woefully unprepared Auburn.
It was hard to see this coming, even though Diaz had promised a more aggressive style from Day 1 in State College.
Through 2 games, the Lions had posted 3 sacks and forced 1 turnover. How was Auburn possibly supposed to see this coming? Four turnovers, 6 sacks, 9 QB hurries and 11 tackles for loss later, Diaz had introduced Penn State’s defense and his hard-hit hammer award to the college football world.
What is this approach? Old school? New school? Reform school? Was that a 3-1-7 alignment out there? The Tigers probably still aren’t sure what hit them Saturday afternoon at their own Jordan-Hare Stadium. Well … they know #11 hit them. And #23. And 16. And 44, 20 and 33. Auburn QBs TJ Finley and Robby Ashford probably have those numbers flashing through their nightmares this week, because those are the rushers who delivered sacks for Diaz’s defense.
The rush came from every conceivable angle. Ferocious freshman Abdul Carter, sporting the revered #11, got home from the linebacker level, as did sophomore Curtis Jacobs (23). Brown (16) blitzed from his safety spot. Chop Robinson (44), Adisa Isaac (20) and 5-star true freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton (33) came off the edge — getting the D-line off the sack schneid.
The players have listed positions, but Penn State employs so many personnel packages and alignments that those labels may be archaic. There are plenty of hybrids and tweeners on the field at various times. Players have keys and responsibilities based on the game situation, the opponent’s formation and how much Diaz wants to mess with the opposition.
“There has been a lot of conversations, like about having seven DBs on the field,” head coach James Franklin said at his Tuesday media session. “That’s because we feel like our DBs are our strength this year. … That will change year-to-year based on getting your best players on the field.”
The best players in a lot of ways seem to be clones of one another: young, lean, powerful, fast. Maybe just a tad undersized by traditional standards.
Carter, a 4-star recruit out of Philadelphia, appears to be the prototype. He’s 6-3, 233 and mature beyond his years. He led the Lions in tackles against Auburn with 6, all of them solo takedowns.
“It starts with the fact that he’s freakishly fast, freakishly strong and doesn’t have the body of a normal high school linebacker coming in,” Franklin said. “I remember talking to him throughout the recruiting process after he had signed, and him and his dad were asking about weight.
“I’m like, ‘you’re plenty big now.’ I think they felt like they had to put on more weight. ‘No, you’re plenty big enough now. It’s about strength and things like that.’ … His maturity and focus for a guy his age is impressive. He is a very disciplined young man.”
He’s also intense.
“Our main thing was just physicality and violence,” Carter said in a postgame interview. “Physicality, creating turnovers, running to the ball. … If we do that, we win.”
Simple as that.
And this is no one-man show. Veterans Jacobs, Brown, Joey Porter Jr. and PJ Mustipher provide the leadership. Robinson, a former 5-star recruit who transferred in from Maryland, joins Carter in the superfreak group, as does Dennis-Sutton, a 5-star true freshman. Isaac, returning from an injury that cost him all of last season, does too. After a slow start this year, he posted 3 TFL and 2 QB hurries on Saturday. Brown is currently on a famous Freaks List, and one suspects several of his teammates will be one day soon.
Diaz trusts all of them and more. Against Auburn, 25 Lions made at least 1 tackle and the defense went 2-deep or more at almost every position.
Tyler Elsdon and Kobe King, the young guys sharing the middle linebacker spot, combined for 9 tackles, 8 of them of the solo variety, as Penn State held star running back Tank Bigsby to 39 yards on 9 carries.
This defense is brash; this is not Pry’s bend-don’t break. There is risk along with the reward. Auburn avoided the fury a few times, its QBs escaping the pocket for long runs or finding receivers downfield. The Lions failed to get off the field on a 3rd-and-20 and a 3rd-and-16 in the first half.
But Auburn never crossed the goal line until the game was well in hand, as Diaz’s unit held the Tigers to field goals twice from within the red zone. Chaos, havoc and bend-don’t-break? That would be one heck of a formula.
Diaz will have to tweak his scheme and pick his spots going forward. The Big Ten East has some quarterbacks who will seize on mistakes and breakdowns way better than Auburn could.
But given the freakish talent and incredible depth at his disposal, he has no reason not to continue to unleash these sleek, more vicious Lions. Again and again.