Jordan Smith first met Grant Haley in 2014, when he offered Haley — then a freshman at his first Penn State practice — some advice on his footwork.
“He was so receptive,” recalled Smith, a senior cornerback on the 2016 squad. “He thanked me right away.”
From the start, Haley wanted nothing more than to prove his worth, to stand out and make his mark. Now, Haley is in Smith’s shoes in terms of leadership. He’s a savvy vet with 36 games of experience and the knowledge that comes with it.
As spring practice starts to wrap up and eyes turn to fall camp, Haley is tasked with leading — and teaching — the underclassmen, especially now that fellow starting corner John Reid could reportedly miss the 2017 season with a knee injury.
Is Haley prepared to take on that larger role?
“Oh yeah, Grant’s been ready,” Smith said, without hesitating. “He hasn’t been loading. He’s been loaded.”
Although he’s not a captain — that title on defense belongs to linebacker Jason Cabinda — Haley sees himself in the same company. A 22-game starter who’s made 81 tackles with 13 pass breakups the past two seasons, Haley is the guy younger defensive backs look up to in the corner room.
“And as a defense, I feel like me, Marcus (Allen) and Jason have really stepped up and taken that responsibility,” Haley added.
The Georgia native’s high school coach isn’t surprised in the least with that development.
Mike Muschamp, head coach of The Lovett School in Atlanta, said Haley was never a vocal player. From the time Muschamp first noticed him in eighth grade to when he graduated, Haley wasn’t one to go out of his way and brag about his achievements. He possessed a “quiet confidence” that always drew in teammates.
“You could always count on him,” Muschamp said. “He’s got the characteristics from a leadership standpoint that anyone would want to have. He didn’t need to go around and tell everyone how good he was. He was always going to work extremely hard to accentuate the gifts that the good Lord blessed him with.”
Muschamp said Haley was always the first in the gym and last to leave at The Lovett School, and he believes that’s what served Haley so well at Penn State. Even Smith saw that work ethic unfold before his eyes early on in Happy Valley.
“He was always looking to gain any kind of information from us older guys,” Smith remembered. “It’s hard to find young athletes like that, to be a sponge and soak up everything.”
Haley credits guys like Smith, Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams for his development as a player and leader. Haley, who still shares a group text with Smith, gleaned so much from those former Nittany Lions and feels as though he wouldn’t be in the position he is today without them.
And now here he is, a senior corner staring down his final year at Penn State.
Haley may not have Reid by his side in 2017. He may be working with more inexperienced players, such as early enrollee Lamont Wade, and he may find himself in a situation he hasn’t faced since arriving at Penn State.
Haley’s ready, though. There’s no doubt about that.
“It’s definitely gone fast,” Haley said. “When it really hits you that it’s here, I mean, it’s been an amazing experience. The group of guys that come in and go, they have an impact on you. You just want to leave your impact on the program.”