Sean Spencer calls his defensive linemen “Wild Dogs” for a reason.
They’re hungry for opportunity. They’re eager to get after the quarterback. Figuratively, they’re foaming at the mouth.
Spencer’s dogs aren’t wilted, weary or worn down. They’re rested and ready-to-go — a product of Spencer’s long-held practice of rotating his linemen frequently.
“I want to put fresh legs in there any chance I get,” Spencer said at Penn State’s media day. “That guy is going to come off the block with everything he’s got because he knows that he’s only got 20 reps in a game, and they’ve got to be at 100 percent.”
Of Penn State’s 1,023 non-penalty defensive snaps in 2016, a total of 11 defensive linemen played at least 22 percent of those downs, per 247 Sports. Penn State tallied 113 tackles for loss (fifth nationally) in 2016 — and 59 of them came from defensive linemen.
That, combined with Penn State’s fourth-quarter defense (5.7 points, 19th nationally), was at least in part a byproduct of Spencer’s philosophy.
For years, dating back to his days coaching FCS and SEC football, Spencer has exhausted offensive lines with a constant stream of healthy hunters.
It’s motivated fresh faces, spelled old heads, given opposing teams fits — and with Penn State’s 2017 season just a few weeks away, the front-four rotation figures to play a key role in the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten title defense.
Late in the game — third, fourth quarter — that same O-line’s been out there snap after snap, and we’re bringing in guys that are fairly fresh. It’s been a real asset.
Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry
“Late in the game — third, fourth quarter — that same O-line’s been out there snap after snap, and we’re bringing in guys that are fairly fresh,” Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “It’s been a real asset.”
In 2006, “Coach Chaos” found himself in Long Island charting reps for the first time.
Spencer spent a year at Hofstra University, coaching the defensive line for the now-defunct Pride football program. He learned from Dave Cohen, Hofstra’s former head coach and now Wake Forest’s defensive line guru.
Spencer’s interest in snap counts started in West Hempstead, N.Y.
The evolution into what it is today took hold at Vanderbilt five years later.
“We knew right away one of our challenges was that we would get worn down in the fourth quarter and we’d get worn down late in the season,” former Vanderbilt head coach and current Nittany Lions’ head man James Franklin said. “How do you create depth?”
That’s the question Franklin and Spencer faced — and addressed — in 2011.
Vanderbilt, a former punching bag in the Southeastern Conference, was transformed under Franklin. The Commodores made three bowl games after reaching the postseason just once in the 28 years prior to his arrival.
In 2010, the Commodores allowed 31.2 points per game. In the three seasons Spencer mentored the defensive line, Vanderbilt surrendered 21.6 points per game on average.
From 2011-13, Spencer’s “Wild Dogs” helped Vanderbilt record 86 sacks. In the three years prior, the Commodores managed only 70.
Franklin said their willingness to play younger defensive linemen helped close the gap between Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC.
Some coaches are hesitant to throw in inexperienced pass-rushers, Franklin said, deferring to lean on known commodities. “It’s easier,” the coach added.
South Carolina could rely on Jadeveon Clowney, and LSU could stick with Barkevious Mingo.
Vanderbilt didn’t have that option. Instead, Spencer met with Franklin every Friday night before games to discuss the projected reps for each defensive lineman.
“It was just something we were kind of forced to do,” Franklin said.
Ryan Buchholz, a four-star defensive lineman in 2015, heard recruiting pitches from plenty of schools across the country.
But thinking back on it, Spencer’s in particular stood out.
“Spence always explained to you in the recruiting process how he’d rotate a ton of guys,” Buchholz said, “and I believed him because I watched the games. You could see people coming in left and right. If I was a coach, I’d do it too.”
And after a season under Spencer, Buchholz knows first-hand how constantly rotating wears down the opponent.
As a redshirt freshman, Buchholz played 22.4 percent of Penn State’s defensive snaps, chipping in at end and tackle. His usage rate was 10th out of 13 Penn State defensive linemen in 2016.
Buchholz played fewer snaps than Garrett Sickels (64.3 percent), Parker Cothren (45.3), Evan Schwan (45.2), Torrence Brown (43.0), Curtis Cothran (37.2), Robert Windsor (31.6), Kevin Givens (31.2), Shareef Miller (26.5) and Antoine White (23.7).
Still, Buchholz made a difference with 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
“You don’t think about the reps,” he said. “You just think about going in and doing your job and not messing up. The hard part would be getting in the flow of games, but sometimes we rotate so much that you are in the flow.”
The redshirt senior defensive tackle — who started eight times in 2016 after beginning the season with a four-game suspension — said at first, it’s hard adjusting to Spence’s style. But Cothran thinks it’s just “something you get used to.”
The “Wild Dogs” practice like they play and are conditioned to hold nothing back each and every rep.
“To be honest, that goes on all year long,” Pry said. “That’s not just something you can turn on on Saturdays. ...There’s a learning process there, and being able to rotate the way we do, it’s not easy to do.”
Trailing by three points, Ohio State had to drive 60 yards to reach field goal range — and Penn State’s front-four wouldn’t let the Buckeyes go anywhere last fall.
The night of Penn State’s monumental 24-21 upset, the “Wild Dogs” drained Ohio State’s offensive line. It was obvious on the Buckeyes’ final drive.
On 10 plays, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was flushed from the pocket four times and sacked twice to effectively end the game.
It was Spencer’s philosophy working at its finest.
“You could tell we wore down the offensive line,” Buchholz said. “We were getting a ton of pressure, and it eventually worked to our favor in the fourth quarter.”
In total, Penn State recorded 11 tackles for loss; seven came from the defensive line. Out of 83 defensive snaps, 10 Nittany Lions recorded 16 reps or more.
The Buckeyes were exhausted in the trenches, and Penn State’s front four caved them in.
Spencer’s rotations helped Penn State secure its biggest win of Franklin’s three-year tenure — and it’ll be a factor when the Nittany Lions look to build on that momentum in 2017.
Spencer has been charting reps now for over a decade. He and Franklin have been consciously keeping defensive linemen fresh for six seasons.
For the budding linemen, it gives them a chance to shine.
For the older, more seasoned vets, it’s an opportunity to catch their breath.
And for opposing offensive line coaches, it’s a constant headache when the fourth quarter comes around.
That’s what Spencer loves about the philosophy.
Sure, to some the persistent substitutions may look hurried or helter-skelter. “Sometimes it was chaos,” Pry said, sipping his water with a smile.
But “Coach Chaos” himself has it all under control. He has for years.
“They see people running on and off, and they get a little agita,” Spencer said. “They’re like, ‘Ah-ah-ah!’ I go, ‘I got it. Relax.’ I watch the other sideline. I watch if they’re substituting. I look at where the hash is. I look at what’s going on. Is the quarterback looking? I’m never getting nervous about it.”
“Wherever you’ve coached at, you bring a part of it with you. ...I knew that the formula for success would come with me here.”