Penn State co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Tim Banks was hired in January, and one of the first items on his to-do list was to watch film — and a lot of it.
Examining play after play, every interception along with every mistake, Banks needed to get a wholesome view of what to expect for the secondary.
“For me, everyone had their moments,” Banks said at Penn State’s media day on Thursday. “Everyone had value and brought something to the table that as a coaching staff we can get excited about.”
Entering the 2016 season, the Penn State defense is going to look different. That’s the reality with a new defensive coordinator, three departing, NFL-drafted defensive linemen, and a slew of new faces at linebacker, with key cogs returning from injury.
While there are questions abound surrounding the unit, Penn State’s secondary could turn out to be the defense’s rock.
Sure, safety Jordan Lucas and cornerback Trevor Williams have graduated and taken their shots at the NFL, but Penn State returns a stable of defensive backs, both at corner and over the top.
“We feel like we’ve got experience there,” Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said. “Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Malik Golden, John Reid, Christian Campbell and Troy Apke, those guys have played a lot of football for us.”
Allen recorded 81 tackles in 2015, second-highest on the team. Reid and Haley each had two interceptions, and Golden had a pick, as well. The six defensive backs Franklin mentioned had 70 appearances and 30 starts between them last year.
And those key returners are relatively young, too. In 2015, Allen, Campbell, Apke and Haley were sophomores, and Reid was a true freshman.
For a unit that surrendered the 10th-fewest passing yards per game (174.5) in the nation last year, there’s a lot of room to grow.
We feel like we’ve got experience there. Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Malik Golden, John Reid, Christian Campbell and Troy Apke, those guys have played a lot of football for us.
Penn State head coach James Franklin, on his defensive backs
“Everybody has an extra year, everybody is older, has matured, and more playing experience,” Reid said. “I think it’s a great thing.”
It goes past the likes of Allen, Haley, Reid, Apke, Golden and Campbell, too.
To Banks and the coaching staff, depth is nothing to worry about in the secondary.
Franklin said they’re looking to identify a No. 4 cornerback and No. 4 safety — not that starting positions are set in stone, but that’s how secure they feel with the unit.
Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry concurred.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Pry said. “We’re trying to still find a guy or two from a depth perspective, but we’ve got great candidates. We’ve got a large pool.”
That being said, competition in spring ball was fierce, and confidence flowed.
“The way we challenged routes in the spring, we got to more balls. We were far more aggressive,” Pry said. “A big part of playing in the secondary for me is confidence, and we’ve got a confident group.”
Campbell experienced it, too.
“The competition is real,” the junior cornerback said. “That’s what makes us a better group.”
That’s what Banks, Pry, Franklin and the rest of the coaching staff are hoping for — with so much depth, they want those different options to elevate themselves and make it difficult to keep them off the field.
Everything considered, Banks is eager for the season to get here. He wants to see which defensive backs lower on the depth chart separate themselves, and if those experienced players like Haley, Allen and Reid can keep improving.
Banks has a good feeling they will.
“I think we really have a chance to reach our full potential,” Banks said. “And if we do that, we’ll feel like we’ve got a pretty good unit.”
And as for that confidence Pry talked so much about, Campbell had his own way of expressing it.
“I feel like we’re great up front, to the point where we can really make interceptions and make plays on the ball,” Campbell said. “I believe that we’ll be the best defense in the Big Ten.”