The key to Penn State defensive success? Coordinator Brent Pry says Nittany Lions trust in framework of defense
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Key to Penn State defensive success? Brent Pry points to framework

Arnold Ebiketie was well into the 2020 season at Temple when it all went wrong for Penn State's defense last year.

A defensive end for the Owls at the time who has since transferred to Penn State to take on a starting role with the Nittany Lions this year, Ebiketie has had no trouble making the complete transition. Channeling the talking point that has become especially familiar within the Penn State defensive room, that much has become evident.

“The biggest thing is we got to play in the framework of the defense,” Ebiketie told reporters, “and that's something that we've been able to do so far. We're just thinking about doing what we're supposed to do. We're going to make plays and everything won't fall apart.”

So far for the Nittany Lions this season, so good.

Limiting opponents as one of the nation’s most effective defenses, now allowing just 15.0 points per game without having surrendered more than 20 in any of their first four games, the Nittany Lions have taken to heart a message that has been instilled since the midpoint of the 2020 campaign.

Penn State Nittany Lions football defensive coordinator Brent Pry
Penn State coordinator Brent Pry is leading the nation's No. 15-ranked scoring defense. (Thomas Frank Carr/BWI)

Painting the picture of a group that didn’t trust its keys, attempting to make plays on guesses with the best intentions, but often coming up on the losing end, Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry acknowledged Thursday the transformation he’s witnessed in the time since.

Through the concurrent pulling back of his approach, admitting he’d asked his defense to do too much in too little practice time, and a readjustment of the fundamental elements of committing to the defensive scheme on the players’ end, what was once a disaster has slowly transformed into a strength of the Nittany Lion defense.

“It’s out of good nature, but guys, they think they need to guess to make a play. They're trying too hard to make a play and not just locked in on the framework and reading keys and that will take care of it,” Pry said. “Sometimes it just dominoes a little bit. One guy is trying to make a play and isn't where he's supposed to be, so the guy next to him tries to make his play and it just carries through a little bit. I just kind of saw it erode over those first couple of weeks.”

Landing within framework, Penn State's defense takes next steps

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At the time, that manifest itself as an avalanche of points scored against his Nittany Lion defense.

Surrendering 30-or-more in each of the first five outings of the year, a threshold that had been eclipsed just twice in 13 games by opponents during the 2019 season, Pry said he shrunk the defensive menu, concentrated on good fundamentals, and found a path that worked.

And maybe more important, he said, the lessons carried through into the Nittany Lions’ most recent offseason.

“That's been our battle cry the entire offseason,” Pry said. “I think the word ‘framework’ means in the structure, doing your job, doing your 1/11th, your part in the defense, being where you're supposed to be. If you'll just trust your keys and read your keys, they're gonna take you to your play; that's about 99 percent over 30 years where that's the case. Training these guys to keep their eyes in the right place and trust their keys, that'll put them in the framework and keep them in the framework.”

Describing a group of leaders numbering “seven or eight” among the Nittany Lion starters this season, the buy-in has delivered the results Pry has sought.

Already surpassing the number of interceptions produced during the 2020 season, 5-4, in less than half the games played, the Nittany Lion defense has also put together a performance worthy of the nation’s 11th overall ranking for red zone defensive numbers.

Fully embracing the attitude, mindset, and approach that Pry has hammered home for nearly a full year, both on and off the field, the ingredient is one the veteran defensive coordinator has considered crucial to the group’s success so far and its opportunity to continue down that path.

“We've had a lot of conversations, a lot of meetings, a lot of emphasis on accountability, how that goes beyond just attending a class or being there on time for study hall or a meal or whatever the case is, that you're accountable to everybody, to yourself, to what's being asked of you. Whether it's to align in the 30 technique when we asked you to, or to be 10 minutes early to a meeting,” Pry said. “Either you're the type of guy that details matter and accountability is important, or you're not. We felt like at times last year we were trying to make a play and disregarding keys and guessing, and you can't guess in this game and be right that often. And then we thought at times we just weren't accountable. It wasn't important enough to make sure we were in the right place doing the right things.

“So that's been a big emphasis and the guys, the leadership on defense, they have embraced that. I respect them and I'm proud of them for it and I appreciate them for it. They have embraced that and have completely aligned with us as the coaches and how important it is. And I think it's paying dividends for all of us right now.”

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