Penn State freshman cornerbacks Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields had each other in 2017. The two highly touted prospects studied plays, broke down film and experienced both hardship and success together.
But all the while, the pair knew they had older sets of shoulders to lean on.
Wade and Castro-Fields roomed with seniors Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, respectively, throughout the season for road games, a concerted effort by the coaching staff to speed up the youngsters’ development.
All parties involved believe it paid dividends this year — and should lead to a greater impact felt down the road.
“It helps a lot,” said Terry Smith, Penn State’s cornerbacks coach. “Christian and Grant are veteran, senior guys who will hopefully be drafted here in the next few months. They’ve played a lot of football for us, and they have a lot of wisdom to share.
“Just watching Lamont and Tariq throughout the year, they’ve grown tremendously. And, shoot, we’ve got three more years with those guys.”
Judging by the duo’s freshman contributions, the seasons ahead are promising.
Castro-Fields played in 12 of 13 games, nabbed his first interception against Georgia State just three weeks into his college career and recorded three pass breakups at Michigan State. It would have been four breakups, too, if not for Marcus Allen’s fourth-quarter roughing the passer penalty.
Wade played less on defense than his freshman counterpart, but the former five-star prospect out of Clairton was a force on special teams. He led the unit in tackles, totaled 31 stops between special teams and defense, chipped in three pass breakups and forced a fumble.
“You’re always going to hold yourself to a high standard,” Wade said. “My mom tells me that I hold myself to impossible standards sometimes. But getting my feet wet, getting my playing time on defense, contributing on special teams, it was really good for me.”
Anyone who watched the Nittany Lions saw that Wade and Castro-Fields have the talent to thrive as Big Ten corners.
Haley and Campbell know that as well as anyone.
When Smith decided to bunk Wade with Haley, the senior was intrigued. A “character” who reminds him of Marcus Allen, Wade’s personality is quite different from Haley’s quiet demeanor.
But the pairing worked.
Haley, a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist, has been in Wade’s shoes before. The Georgia native made his initial impact at Penn State on special teams in 2014 before later developing into a captain and reliable starter on defense.
Haley, like Wade, is also relatively undersized. Both corners stand at 5-foot-9.
“I see him as a great leader one day,” Haley said of Wade. “The passion he has for this game is something that you can’t take away from anybody. ... We’re not the biggest kids, but no one can measure our hearts.”
Castro-Fields’ presence struck a chord with Campbell, too.
Both are lanky outside corners with a knack for the football. Campbell had an interception as a true freshman, as well.
But personality-wise, Campbell’s “little brother” is a bit more outgoing, quizzing the veterans more than he ever did as an up-and-comer.
“When a young guy asks you a lot of questions, you don’t get that often,” Campbell said. “I didn’t really ask a lot of questions when I was a freshman. So seeing Tariq do that, that means he’s locked in. He’s committed.”
Added Castro-Fields: “He’s someone I’ve really leaned on. I’ve asked him a lot of questions. Every day.”
That’s what Smith likes to hear.
He and the coaching staff paired the freshmen up with seniors for that particular reason, so that a little bit of Haley and Campbell rub off on the budding corners.
In two or three years, the hope is both Wade and Castro-Fields will be in guiding roles — passing along tidbits to promising freshmen and answering questions before road games.
Their mentors believe that will be the case.
“You see those guys and you know what really matters to them is football,” Haley said. “They really want to learn. They want to take that next step. They want to be great Penn State players.
“I’m excited for them and their futures. The sky’s the limit for both of them.”