Penn State Football

How Kevin Givens’ return changes Penn State’s defense

Tyler Bowen owns a unique perspective on Penn State front-four enforcer Kevin Givens: He coached against the defensive lineman before seeing him up close on a daily basis.

Bowen, now the Nittany Lions’ tight ends coach, helmed Maryland’s offensive line last season and was tasked with gameplanning for Givens and the Nittany Lions’ vaunted front.

Bowen doesn’t forget the film he watched on Givens, the issues he presented interior linemen with his power and quickness, and the versatility shown when bouncing from defensive tackle to end. And he couldn’t shake what he saw live in person on Nov. 25, 2017, when the game-wrecker tallied a sack, tackle for loss and forced fumble in Penn State’s 66-3 triumph.

“In a lot of ways, he’s just a rare athlete,” Bowen said on Thursday, days before Penn State hosts Kent State. “It’s a different skill-set than a guard or center normally sees. And on the edge, being able to hold the point and limit things in the run game, playing on tight ends, things like that, he can be a matchup nightmare.”

Bowen isn’t alone in that thought, either. Several players and coaches in Penn State’s program believe that Givens is an ordeal for offensive coordinators to overcome. As the Golden Flashes prepare for their Saturday tilt at Beaver Stadium, Kent State coach Sean Lewis probably isn’t pleased to see Givens pop up on last week’s film. But the Nittany Lions are. They have one of the most dynamic defensive playmakers in the Big Ten back.

Givens — who had 3.5 sacks, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in five starts last year — missed Penn State’s season opener due to a violation of team rules. In his place, redshirt freshman Fred Hansard started at defensive tackle, and it didn’t go well. Hansard looked understandably overwhelmed, and the Nittany Lions’ front four as a whole appeared gassed. Without a pass rush, Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas picked apart a confused and sluggish secondary, leading to a 28-point fourth quarter and near overtime upset for the Mountaineers.

After the close call, head coach James Franklin, visibly frustrated, had something to say.

“When you’ve got one of your better defensive tackles not playing in the game, did that have a factor in it? I don’t think there is any doubt about it,” Franklin said. “And we will be better when Kevin starts playing for us.”

Givens did return against Pitt after a “behavior modification,” as described by Sean McDonough, ABC’s play-by-play announcer calling the game. Turns out McDonough uttered Givens’ name more than once last weekend.

The Altoona native tied for the team lead with seven tackles, tallied two tackles for loss and officially hurried Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett once, even though the 6-foot-1, 285-pounder was breathing down the dual-threat’s neck all night. On Givens’ seven tackles, the Panthers gained a net total of seven yards. He commandeered the line of scrimmage, disposing of guards, stymieing bruising back Qadree Ollison, harassing Pickett and even chasing down jet sweep speedster Shocky Jacques-Louis.

The performance was more than just a few flashes of brilliance. Givens showed why Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry once called him the “model” for the type of hybrid lineman the Nittany Lions look to recruit each year. He showed why he could be the difference not just this weekend against Kent State, but when the meat of the Big Ten schedule rears its head.

When asked to describe the impact of Givens moments after the clock hit zero on a 51-6 rout, Franklin started talking before the reporter even finished their question. “Huge,” Franklin said without hesitation. “I think we all realize Kevin Givens is a difference maker.”

Defensive veterans like Shareef Miller and Amani Oruwariye echoed Franklin’s sentiments, saying that Givens sparked a defense that — while vulnerable to the run in the first half against Pitt — rebounded and looked like a capable unit after a shaky season opener.

The admiration for Givens didn’t stop there. On Wednesday, defensive end Daniel Joseph called the redshirt junior a “tremendous athlete” and “wonderful asset to the D-line.” An hour before Joseph’s conference call, Penn State center Michal Menet — who has faced him in practice countless times — said Givens is “so sudden when he comes off the ball” and is “really tough to go against.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever played against a player that is as big and as strong as Kevin but is still as quick as he is,” Menet said. “He’s honestly a matchup nightmare.”

There are those two words again: Matchup nightmare. Bowen and Menet won’t be the last people to call Givens that, either. Not if he continues to play like he did against Pitt. Not if he dominates Kent State, whose offensive line was torn to shreds by Illinois in Week 1 to the tune of 12 tackles for loss.

Givens — the explosive and dynamic lineman with sneaky NFL potential — is back. And Penn State’s opponents are forced to take notice.

“We added one of the more explosive players we have on our team. We added one of our more experienced defensive linemen that we have,” Franklin said. “He’s going to have a big presence. We expect him to have a big year and continue to grow on what he did last week.”