Aug. 27—STATE COLLEGE — James Franklin needed to hire an assistant coach, and when you have college football programs with big hopes, those hires tend to be made in the pursuit of little risk.
They go to experienced hands, savvy veterans who have seen it all in the college game.
But as he went through the interview process, the candidate who kept pushing his way to the front Franklin's desk had none of those traits.
With coordinator Manny Diaz's defense expected to be the backbone of the No. 7 Nittany Lions, plenty of attention will be placed on the first-year assistant coach who wound up clutching the reigns of what may be the heartbeat of that unit.
That's right where players in that group want them to be, too. Because they insist Deion Barnes is guiding them to greatness, with a different approach to coaching.
"I really see him more as a brother and a mentor," Penn State defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton raved. "He's obviously a coach, and he gives me critiques and stuff. But when it comes from him, it's just different. Not all coaches can relate to players like he does. Not all coaches care about players like Deion does. I love Deion. I know he's going to ride or die for me and our D-line."
Often, there's a not-so-narrow chasm created within a college football program when a successful position group loses its coach before it wants. There are questions asked that won't be answered until the game film is made. There are doubts created.
All that existed before the 2020 season when John Scott Jr. took over after beloved predecessor Sean Spencer's departure for the NFL. And they existed in the spring, for sure, when Barnes got the job.
After all, at least Scott had a track record that took him from the NFL coaching ranks with the New York Jets to a major college program at South Carolina, with stops in between.
Barnes had only ever worked for one college program: Penn State. And that effectively was in just one job: graduate assistant.
But as Franklin brought candidates to State College for interviews, several players said they went to the head coach advocating for Barnes, in part because they relate to him. And that's for good reason: He played defensive end at Penn State and was a dominant enough player to earn the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year award in 2012.
"He's genuine and down to earth," sophomore defensive tackle Zane Durant said. "He's young like us, so he knows what we go through on a day-to-day basis and what it takes. He understands us a lot. That's why he relates to us so well."
Franklin described Barnes' style as "very, very demanding," and Barnes made sure to point out that the understanding doesn't come without expectations.
"It hasn't really changed," Barnes said. "They always had respect for me when I was a GA. They listened to me. It's just that, I wasn't that voice in the room that was the final voice. Now they're going to the beat of my drum. They just realize it's a different coaching style with me."
Those expectations will be heightened this year despite Barnes' relative inexperience.
Penn State's turnaround from a program that lost six of its last eight in 2021 to one that went 11-2 and won the Rose Bowl last season came in part because of the defensive line's rebound. Recovering from an injury that cost him all of 2021, defensive end Adisa Isaac finished with 11 tackles for loss. He and top transfer portal pickup Chop Robinson combined for 9 1/2 sacks, and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher led a tackle group that helped Penn State rank 17th in the nation in rushing defense.
Mustipher and versatile defensive end Nick Tarburton graduated, but most of the other key contributors from last season's group are back, insisting an offseason in the weight room combined with Barnes' tutelage made them better and hungrier.
Robinson said he has added close to 20 pounds, which he hopes will make him sturdier against the run and harder to handle off the edge. Isaac's dominant Rose Bowl has him on track to reach expectations after the offseason Achilles tendon tear in 2021 that slowed him early on last season. Dennis-Sutton and fellow ends Zuriah Fisher and Amin Vanover will be in the rotation as well.
Meanwhile, the undersized-but-unrelenting Durant will be counted on to help make up for the loss of Mustipher, working along with veterans Hakeem Beamon, Dvon Ellies, Coziah Izzard and Jordan van den Berg in the middle.
"There's still some growth that's happening every day with going from being a GA to a full-time coach in a top 10 program in a Power 5 institution," Franklin said of Barnes. "There's an adjustment period. But, he's handled it extremely well. He's probably way ahead of where most people would expect and anticipate."
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