At one point dealing with seven injured linebackers and a herd of inexperienced players, Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry has had his work cut out for him this season.
But the Nittany Lions defense, so often considered to be Penn State’s strength in the past, returned to its typical disruptive status in last Saturday’s upset over Ohio State.
Pry, also Penn State’s linebackers coach, discussed injuries and his players’ subsequent rebound on a conference call Thursday.
Q: I was wondering if you could reflect on the season so far — everything you went through, and everything that your defensive staff and players went through, and where things are for you heading into Purdue.
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A: “Obviously there’s been a lot of adversity. The plan was to have the veteran backers and veteran back end to bring the young front along, and we got a curveball early with the injuries to (Brandon) Bell, (Jason) Cabinda and (Nyeem) Wartman-White. Some guys had to grow up fast, and we put more of an onus on the front. Week by week, I think they’ve improved...We’ve seen the maturity increase, and I think that’s a big part that’s got us to this point. I also think the adversity that we faced and the way the kids handled it became a positive. That had a chance to flip sideways — a couple of tough losses, you got your new guys playing, and the guys really persevered, working hard and seeking results.”
Q: How does having Brandon and Jason back help you from a play-calling standpoint, and how much flexibility does it allow you?
A: “Against Ohio State, we were able to do some things that we couldn’t previously. So many offenses, including Ohio State, is ‘check with me’. They’re getting a play from the sidelines after a coach in the box takes a look at the defense. Against Minnesota and against Maryland, we kind of rode out what we had. We didn’t check at all against Minnesota. So when someone can I.D. pressure or I.D. a defense, we kind of had to ride it out. With those experienced guys in there, particularly the two of them together, you can make a call and make an adjustment that will get communicated and get executed. That was really big for us. And then the leadership and the confidence that they have, it’s uplifting to everybody.”
Q: What are you, as the leader of the defense, most proud of so far?
A: “I think the fighting through adversity. There was a lot on these guys. You come out of Pitt, you kind of rebound and play pretty good against Temple, and you know you’ve got your hands full going on the road at Michigan. You have a couple injuries that hurt you, and you have a couple busts early in the game...Things kind of mounted up. But we came back after Michigan and said, ‘Hey look, this is where we’re at. We can be a very good defense, and here’s why. Here’s the positives against Temple, Kent State, Michigan and Pitt. Here’s why we didn’t play well against Michigan and Pitt. It’s not about who’s out there, it’s about us.’ It’s about what we did as coaches and players, and where we can be better. Let’s learn from that, put it away, and be better for it.”
Q: With two season-ending injuries in back-to-back years, how has Nyeem Wartman-White handled the last month or so, and he used a medical redshirt in 2012, is a return for him possible?
A: “Never say never. I don’t know the answer to that totally. I’d say it’s doubtful. Nyeem is looking to the future. His attitude has been outstanding, and I don’t if I could’ve handled it the same way. He comes in with a big smile, he coaching these guys up, and he’s an inspiration to everybody. He’s refreshing that way, and makes everyone smack themselves and say, ‘Hey, look how fortunate I am. This guy has a great attitude and he’s on his second ACL injury, what do I have to complain about?’ Nyeem has a bright future, whether it’s in football, coaching or something outside of athletics. He’s an outstanding young man, and we’re going to be with him every step of the way.”
Q: With Koa Farmer moving to linebacker this year, is that the plan this offseason, to maybe put on some weight and be an outside linebacker next year, or are you planning on sliding him back into the secondary long-term?
A: “Right now, I really like where he is. I think we all do. He has a chance to really flourish. There’s still contention that he could grow into a safety for us and help us there and be a starter at that position. All along he’s a been a guy that’s been on that fence. He’s a true hybrid guy. The thing that concerned me about him being at linebacker, he’s really, really made me feel better about. He’s playing more physical. He’s blitzing better. He’s better in the box. He’s become more defensive-minded. I think that’s helping him progress. I’m excited about his future. (Safeties coach) Tim Banks will have to have a fist-fight to take him back, because I can see him staying at the linebacker position.”