Zayd Issah had never played defense before last season.
Next year, he'll arrive in Happy Valley, where historically, defense has come first.
Issah — one of the PIAA’s co-Class AAAA players of the Year last season — orally committed to Penn State on Friday. The Central Dauphin rising senior became the 14th member of Penn State’s 2013 recruiting class and the sixth to commit to Penn State in the month of June.
“The way Coach (Bill) O’Brien explained the program to me and my family, they’re going to keep the tradition at Penn State,” Issah said. “They’re going to keep the great defense, great academics and keep doing things the right way, but also bring the program into the 21st century at the same time. Whether it be with the offense, the recruiting or some other decisions. I think it’s going in the right direction.”
And Issah, who was mainly an offensive weapon for the Rams in his first two seasons, is taking all the steps necessary to make sure he’ll be ready to star on the defensive side of the ball in college.
Issah, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, made his Central Dauphin debut as a running back before turnover in the program presented the Rams’ coaching staff with a need for another linebacker on one of their two defensive platoons.
“We said, ‘Why not give potentially the best athlete on the team a shot?’” Central Dauphin defensive coordinator Sean Rosler said.
Issah didn’t disappoint despite being used experimentally in different situations.
Playing a hybrid-type position where his responsibilities blended those of defensive ends, outside linebackers and safeties, Issah finished with 123 tackles and 14 sacks, good for second on the team in both categories.
The Rams won the Class AAAA PIAA Championship and gave up an average of just under 14 points per game in the process.
Rosler credits Issah’s work ethic, football intelligence and pure athletic ability in aiding his quick adjustment to taking on so many new roles.
There was another key factor — Issah’s longing to punish ball carriers.
“He has potential for really big hits,” Rosler said. “We were afraid he would kill someone at safety to be honest with you.”
Although listed at 205 pounds — the weight he ran track at — Issah was closer to 220 pounds during football season, Rosler said.
He’d used that size in bump-and-run coverage when matched up against receivers at the line of scrimmage. But instead of leveraging the widout off his route, Issah’s ‘bump’ would usually knock an opposing wide-out to the ground, effectively eliminating him from the play before it had even developed.
“He really gets jacked up in games when he has a nice, form tackle and when he puts a guy on his back,” Rosler said. “He can chase you down anywhere. He gets the sack and pulls the quarterback down, but he kind of gets jazzed up about squaring up a kid. I think he wants to have more fun doing that this year I would say.”
Issah agreed with his coach, that his transition to defense was rather painless. At least for him.
“It wasn’t bad actually,” Issah said. “Personally I think we have one of the best linebacker coaches in the state in (Central Dauphin) Coach Paul Linn, with him teaching us technique and teaching me where to be, other than that it’s just making plays and liking to hit people.”
Next year Issah will get the chance to learn from one of the best defensive minds in Penn State’s Ron Vanderlinden, who along with Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, helped recruit Issah, Central Dauphin head coach Glen McNamee said.
Rosler said it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Issah could even contribute in Johnson’s defensive line rotation if needed.
“He’s not even reached his body weight,” Rosler said. “He could be a defensive end for (Larry) Johnson by the time he’s a senior. I could see easily that transition. He’s not done growing I don’t think. He’s a long and lean, muscular kid.”
And he’s the third linebacker recruit to commit to Penn State this month. Issah’s oral agreement was preceded by Brandon Bell (Oakcrest H.S., N.J.) and Zach Bradshaw (Damascus H.S., Md.) who made public their intents to suit up for the Nittany Lions in 2013 earlier this month.
Issah is rated by Rivals.com as a three-star recruit. He also had offers from Iowa, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Purdue and Rutgers, among others.
He chose Penn State after three visits, including attending the Alabama game this past fall.
“It’s just the direction the program is going with the new hires on the coaching staff and the excitement that’s going on up there, too,” Issah said.
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_