No. 11 Penn State to lean on defense as offense develops

Penn State's Jaquan Brisker celebrates his interception during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Penn State won 16-10.

Penn State’s rout of Ball State was well underway Saturday when, for about six seconds, Daequan Hardy played cornerback as well as it can be played.

Hardy blanketed Ball State receiver Jayshon Jackson for 30 yards, mirroring his movement and matching his stride while also using his body to shield Jackson from the ball, never losing contact while also never grabbing and holding.

When the ball came, Hardy went up, still holding Jackson off, and made an over-the-shoulder grab.

It was a perfect play, made by Penn State’s third-best corner at best, If you include safeties, Hardy ranks maybe fifth-best of the defensive backs. Maybe sixth. Maybe seventh.

The secondary is Penn State’s best position-group. Yes, including the running backs. It has to be among the deepest position-groups Penn State has ever had. Yes, including the running backs.

The DBs have had an enormous impact the first two weeks of the season. Week one, Wisconsin managed 185 yards passing, on just five yards per attempt. With the game on the line and the Badgers in the red zone in the fourth quarter, safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown intercepted throws that sealed a 16-10 win.

Wisconsin fans will put those entirely on their quarterback, Graham Mertz. Go back and look. Mertz had nowhere good to go with the ball.

Fourteen DBs played Saturday in a blowout. In a close game on the road against a ranked opponent, 13 played at Wisconsin. Obviously, there’s not enough work for that many people on the regular defense, but DBs are DBs because they’re fast and athletic and can tackle, so they’re all over Penn State’s special teams.

It’s an eclectic group, particularly in terms of how it was assembled. There isn’t a five-star recruit in the bunch. The closest to that is probably Tariq Castro-Fields, one of the CB starters, who’s been at Penn State since 2017 and had an up-and-down, injury-plagued career.

The other starter at CB, Joey Porter, Jr., is the son of the ex-Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. Arizona State finished second for Porter, Jr., but his other offers were of the Buffalo, Colorado State, Eastern Kentucky ilk.

Brisker and Brown, the starting safeties, are transfers from Lackawanna Community College. Brisker, a first-team all-American last season according to the film-study geeks at Pro Football Focus, might simply be Penn State’s best player. His only scholarship offer, out of Gateway High near Pittsburgh, was from Toledo.

Coach James Franklin has found roles for A.J. Lyton, a Florida State transfer corner who is the gunner on punt coverage, and Johnny Dixon, a South Carolina transfer corner whose workload figures to grow.

Hardy, who’s just 5-9, 180, was a marginal recruit, until Franklin and his aides saw him play for Penn Hills High against Manheim Central in the 2018 Class 5A state championship game. Hardy intercepted three passes that day, returning one 100 yards for a touchdown, had 109 yards in pass receptions, and an 84-yard kickoff-return TD.

“We were on the fence about offering him until we saw that,’’ Franklin said last week. “He dominated the game.’’

Then there’s true-freshman CB Kalen King, whom Franklin called, “probably the most advanced freshman we’ve had since we’ve been here,” last spring.

The depth is such that Jonathan Sutherland, the veteran foundational special-teams player and co-captain, has essentially been moved to linebacker.

Despite all that, and incredibly, Kaleb Brown, a true freshman walk-on CB from Wilson High School who had virtually no major-college recruiting interest, not only traveled to Wisconsin but played in each of the first two games.

"We probably have the best secondary that we have had," Franklin said at Big Ten Media Days at Indianapolis in July.

That quote raised some eyebrows then. It looks like an understatement now.

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