For the third time in as many seasons, Penn State will feature a new strong safety — and the comparisons between 2018's probable starter and the last two guys are eerily and positively similar.
Garrett Taylor, a patient veteran who persevered through an injury and position change, could follow in the footsteps of Malik Golden and Troy Apke this fall. The redshirt junior started at strong safety in Penn State's Blue-White Game April 21st following what defensive coordinator Brent Pry called "a great spring." James Franklin said two weeks earlier that he and Nick Scott would be the first-team safeties if the Nittany Lions' season kicked off right then and there.
While Pry noted stiff competition at the position with months to go before the Nittany Lions' season opener, Taylor has a better chance than anyone to be the No. 1 ballhawk Sept. 1st, with recent history on his side.
"He's a guy who has kind of hung in the wings behind some pretty good players and has worked and worked," Pry said of Taylor after Penn State's annual scrimmage. "He's where he's supposed to be in the defense. He defends with the leverage that's required. He's a smart football player, and he's a bit of a field general out there."
Added Taylor: "It's always nice to see things come together. I had an unconventional start, coming in with an injury and then redshirting. But it's been good to see my hard work start to pay off."
Taylor — the third-highest rated prospect in Penn State's 2015 recruiting class, behind only Saquon Barkley and John Reid — redshirted his first year in Happy Valley due to a serious knee injury sustained in high school. After the 2016 season, Taylor moved from cornerback to safety, and in 2017, he didn't see much of the field. The Virginia native appeared in all 13 games, but played in just eight percent of Penn State's regular-season defensive snaps, according to 247 Sports.
In short, Taylor is an older player with little in-game experience who had to adjust to safety. Sound familiar?
Neither Golden nor Apke came to Penn State with defense in mind; the former was listed as a wide receiver in 2012, and the latter was recruited as a pass-catcher in 2014. Now, the gap in playing time is a tad greater. Golden started four times before assuming the full-time role in 2016, and Apke logged 28.8 percent of defensive snaps in 2016 prior to filling Golden's shoes this past season.
But Franklin likened Taylor to those two NFL players, noting his "right attitude" — and Taylor believes he's able to make the same kind of leap Golden and Apke handled with aplomb.
"I've improved the most in coverage, in man and zone. Just being able to read the quarterback and make a break on the ball, I think I've gotten more comfortable with that, and that's allowed me to play a lot faster," Taylor said. "I hold myself to the highest expectations in terms of putting pressure on myself to play like the kind of athlete, the kind of football player I think I am."
Even though he has the inside track to the strong safety job, Taylor will "have his hands full," per Pry. Lamont Wade, Jonathan Sutherland, Ayron Monroe and John Petrishen are all competing for time.
But Taylor created separation between himself and that pool of players over the spring. And whether it's hitting the sand pit to increase his explosiveness or staying in the Lasch Building a little longer for extra reps, the safety will work to ensure he maintains that distance over the summer.
Taylor wants to become the next Apke, the next Golden. And he's moving in the right direction.
"I have to keep my nose to the ground and keep working this summer," Taylor said. "And hopefully it'll carry over to the fall."