Penn State Football

Penn State football: Young secondary shines for Nittany Lions defense

Penn State’s Grant Haley was one of three freshmen who started in the Nittany Lions secondary on Saturday. Penn State beat Temple 30-13 to become bowl eligible.
Penn State’s Grant Haley was one of three freshmen who started in the Nittany Lions secondary on Saturday. Penn State beat Temple 30-13 to become bowl eligible. CDT photo

Adrian Amos remembers feeling a few jitters before his first start as a freshman.

But after the first play, he said, it was all about playing football. Nothing else mattered.

No one cares about a player’s class or experience level.

“I don’t know what playing like a freshman means,” said Amos, now a senior starting safety. “Everybody’s out there playing, so you’re held accountable. If somebody misses a coverage or gets beat, it’s not ‘Oh he’s just a freshman.’ He’s held accountable just like Mike Hull would be.”

Amos was surrounded by three freshmen in the secondary at times Saturday, and they came up with big plays to help Penn State earn a 30-13 win over Temple at Beaver Stadium. Freshmen cornerbacks Christian Campbell and Grant Haley each hauled in interceptions as did Amos and senior Jesse Della Valle. Campbell started in place of Trevor Williams, who was out with an injury. Haley returned his interception for a touchdown to put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter.

Campbell and Haley each recorded three tackles. Campbell also had a pass breakup.

Freshman safety Marcus Allen started his fourth straight game and finished with two tackles.

“I like freshmen to come in and make plays for us,” Penn State coach James Franklin said, looking up at recruits watching his postgame press conference. “We’re going to play guys. We’re going to play guys that are ready. We’re going to play guys that prepare themselves physically and mentally, but I’m really proud of those guys. They’ve been playing all year long, and they’ve been playing well.”

A year ago, Campbell and Haley were still in high school.

Franklin said he looks for players with speed and ball skills who could play wide receiver or defensive back in recruiting.

Campbell and Haley fit the mold.

“Those guys have a lot of the things that you necessarily can’t teach,” Franklin said. “They got the speed, they got the athleticism.”

Those skills were on display Saturday.

With Temple trailing 20-13, Campbell pulled in his first career interception to halt an Owls’ drive late in the third quarter.

The pocket collapsed on Temple quarterback P.J. Walker, and his pass intended for wide receiver Brandon Shippen landed in the waiting arms of Campbell.

Haley picked off Walker on the Owls’ next drive.

Penn State linebacker Nyeem Wartman blew right through the middle of the Temple line untouched to provide the pressure. Haley caught the pass at the 30-yard line and took off downfield, diving into the end zone to give the Nittany Lions a 27-13 lead with 13:57 left in the fourth quarter.

“Since they got here, we all knew they were going to be great players,” defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said. “They really stepped up. Those plays are made by big players, and they made some big plays.

“That pick-6 was unbelievable just to watch him fall in the end zone. I just couldn’t be more excited where we’re headed and how good we really could be.”

The emergence of the freshmen as playmakers in the secondary rounds out a stout Penn State defense.

The defensive line, led by Zettel, has been dominant all season. The linebackers, led by Hull, have been steady.

Franklin said he’s seen depth develop in both position groups.

With the freshmen contributing, the secondary was dependable even without Williams.

“You look in the secondary, we came into this with a little bit of a question mark in the one corner spot but felt like we had experience there and played some young guys,” Franklin said. “So what you see on defense is we have depth and we have playmakers and we have experience at all three levels.”

Franklin said the freshmen built their confidence with each play they’ve made.

They’ve learned from the veterans ahead of them and gained experience throughout the season.

Hull said the freshman class of defensive backs is the most talented he’s seen in his career.

As far as the senior linebacker’s concerned, though, they shouldn’t be defined by their class.

“These guys aren’t freshmen anymore,” Hull said. “It’s almost a full year that they’ve been playing. We know that they’re very athletic and very talented and they’re just going to keep getting better and better.”