Penn State Football

The defense never rests: New coaches, returning leaders have built a stout scheme for Nittany Lions

Penn State defensive coordinator and safeties coach Bob Shoop yells to the players during the 8th spring practice on Saturday, March 29, 2014 in Holuba Hall.
Penn State defensive coordinator and safeties coach Bob Shoop yells to the players during the 8th spring practice on Saturday, March 29, 2014 in Holuba Hall. CDT photo

Shoop, Spencer, Pry and Smith.

Sounds a little like a law firm.

Not quite Dewey, Cheatam and Howe.

These four guys are anything but Stooges (though Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp could work as nicknames).

Bob Shoop, Sean Spencer, Brent Pry and Terry Smith have coached a defense that — regardless of what happens against Boston College in Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl — will be recognized as one of the best that has been put together over the storied history of the program.

They put together a unit that ranked first nationally in rushing defense (84.8 ypg), second in total defense (269.8 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (17.7 ppg).

The strong defensive unit is the biggest reason why an offensively challenged Penn State is playing in the postseason. The Nittany Lions (6-6) scored just 22 touchdowns this season, and five of those came against overmatched UMass.

Shoop, who also coaches safeties, Spencer (defensive line) and Pry (linebackers) have all been nominated for their work this season as assistant coaches on James Franklin’s staff this season.

Shoop remembers when the accolades weren’t so great.

When he, Spencer and Pry joined Franklin’s staff at Vanderbilt, an article in the media wasn’t very kind.

“When we all got hired at Vanderbilt, I came from William and Mary,” Shoop started. “(Pry) came from Georgia Southern. Spence came from Bowling Green. It wasn’t exactly like we were ready to kick ass and take names in the SEC. The article said be prepared to be underwhelmed by these guys.”

But they did help Vandy, long recognized as the worst team in the SEC, take some names. The Commodores won nine games the previous two seasons before Franklin arrived at Penn State.

What has made these guys so good?

Is it all Xs and Os or something more?

“We’re very consistent in our approach,” said Shoop, who is coaching at his 11th different school since 1989. “We don’t come in one day and it’s here and one day it’s here, one day it’s over here. We’re very consistent with one another. We complement each other very well.”

Shoop has dumbfounded many with his pregame predictions that seem to hit more often than not.

Spencer is known as “Coach Chaos” for his manic energy.

Pry, the son of a longtime coach, is being touted as a potential head coaching candidate down the road.

Smith is the former Penn State receiver who built a WPIAL powerhouse at Gateway.

“We complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Shoop said. “I think we’re consistent with the players. We coach mentality. We coach the players very hard. We’re aggressive. We’re not afraid to disagree with one another.”

Penn State’s players see the same things.

“It was really fun to work with this defensive staff,” said senior Mike Hull, the Big Ten’s Linebacker of the Year. “They all complement each other really well. You’ve got coach Spence, who is the crazy one. Coach Pry is great to talk to all of the time. Coach Shoop is the mastermind and coach Smith is just a solid coach all-around. They complement each other so well and that’s why I think that’s why we had so much success.”

“It’s been great,” defensive end C.J. Olaniyan added. “They’re great coaches and they’re smart coaches. They believe in their players. They come in every day and give us their best effort every day and that’s the way we approach it as well.”

Hull said the defensive philosophy definitely has changed. The idea is to be very aggressive.

It’s certainly worked. The Nittany Lions have forced 21 turnovers, have 30 sacks and 87 tackles for losses. Opponents who do get to the red zone (inside the 20) score touchdowns less than half of the time.

Prior to this season, Hull had worked with Ron Vanderlinden, a linebackers coach who helped the likes of Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, Sean Lee, Gerald Hodges, NaVorro Bowman, Michael Mauti, Josh Hull, Nate Stupar and Glen Carson make NFL rosters.

Hull moved from the outside to the middle and had his best season. He enters Saturday’s clash with Boston College with 134 tackles.

“Being coached by coach Vanderlinden, it was different having a new coach this year,” Hull said. “For the first time, coach Pry did a great job. He was great with the relationship with the players. It was just a different philosophy. He coached getting downhill and getting off of blocks fast. If you didn’t have to take on blocks and could get to the ballcarrier, just do that. It allowed us to play faster and not be robots out there. Just go and make the play.

“He definitely stresses the fundamentals like coach Vanderlinden, but at the same time he wants you to be a football player and go out there and make all of the plays you can.”

Like Hull, there’s been plenty making their share.

And if the Nittany Lions want to beat Boston College they’ll have to make many more.

The Eagles boast a big beefy line and want to run early and often. They’ve gained 3,022 yards on the ground, which averages out to 252 yards per game.

It will be strength vs. strength, something that will make for an interesting clash.

“You look at the statistics that we always look at, turnover margin they have the advantage,” said Franklin as he offered analysis. “Penalties per game, they have the advantage. Total offense, they have the advantage. Total defense, we have the advantage. Scoring offense, they have the advantage. Scoring defense, we have the advantage. So about what you would think it is at this point.”

Shoop said that other numbers are key to not only playing well, but to playing winning football.

“To me, the categories that define winning football are winning third down, winning the red zone, winning the turnover margin and winning the clock situations,” he said. “And you use those as examples to share with the guys, yeah, we’re playing well, but to play winning football we need to do better in these situations. And the players understand that.”

Thanks in part to a defensive staff (no Stooges included) that has laid down some law this fall.

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