Brandon Smith might look like any other civilian journalist in Beaver Stadium’s post-game media room, were it not for his Penn State sweatsuit and an ice wrap.
A redshirt senior, formerly a preferred walk-on who has since gained scholarship status, the linebacker sports a patchy goatee, combed forward hair and a quiet demeanor. Asked for insights on the Nittany Lions and their inner workings, though, and Smith is a reliable source for a thoughtful response, albeit normally one that is also succinct.
When asked recently to lend some perspective on how Penn State’s team maturity shapes its success, Smith was game to explore the idea. For a Nittany Lion team traveling to Iowa Friday for its first road trip for the 2017 season and a date with the Hawkeyes to open Big Ten play, it’s an ingredient critical to the Lions’ success.
“We've got a lot of guys who are just selfless people. We've got a lot of guys who are bonding and willing to sacrifice,” said Smith. “When you have that, and with so many talented people and they're willing to take on a different role or a harder role, it's impressive to see what can happen through that.
“We just have a standard and we have an expectation this week and I think people are mature enough to see that and take that approach one week at a time, one day at a time. So we don't have any big heads on the team, we don't have any guys who are larger than life. Everyone is just doing their job and it's been paying off.”
Examples of Smith’s assertions have been commonplace at seemingly every position on the field so far this season.
At the forefront, the extraordinary early season performance of running back Saquon Barkley sets the standard. Now one of the nation’s leaders for all-purpose yardage, piling up production on traditional carries out of the backfield, catching the ball in open space, or even as a kick returner, the Heisman Trophy hopeful has already built an impressive highlight reel in the first three games. Furthering his resume Saturday night against Georgia State, an evening in which he averaged 14.5 yards each time he touched the ball, was apparently not on Barkley’s mind however.
“The thing that makes Saquon Barkley special is that there was no one more excited on our sideline, coming up to me and Joe Moorhead, wanting to get (walk-on) Nick Eury on the field. That was what he was excited about, getting Eury a carry tonight,” said Franklin after the game. “He is a special guy in a lot of different ways. I stopped being surprised or amazed a while ago with him.”
The personality of this particular group of Nittany Lions extends beyond Barkley’s influence, though, manifest in its conduct in games, practices, work ethic and even away from the field.
In fact, as evidenced throughout this season and last, the effectiveness of Penn State’s offense under Moorhead depends on it.
A system built on the notion of attacking the weaknesses opponents present in their quests to limit damage elsewhere, be it aimed at Barkley, Trace McSorley, Mike Gesicki, or among the wideouts, stat-stuffing contributions are no longer a guarantee at any position or for any single star. Among a deep and talented set of wide receivers, nonconference production encapsulated the concept completely.
As Gesicki and Barkley now lead the team in receptions with 12 and 11, respectively, the likes of DaeSean Hamilton, Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thopmkins, Saeed Blacknall and Brandon Polk have been left to divvy up 28 other receptions combined. And yet, determined to provide big contributions via other avenues, a dogged commitment to downfield blocking has helped pave the way to a remarkable 75 percent of the Nittany Lions’ yardage accumulation coming through explosive plays.
Penn State’s examples of selflessness and team commitment have been just as prevalent on the defensive side of the ball.
Owning talented depth on the line, among the linebackers and in the secondary, coordinator Brent Pry and his assistants have been vigilant in building experience for the unit’s younger contributors. As a result, a total of 46 players have recorded at least one tackle for the Nittany Lions this season, up from the group’s total all of last season.
Following up his team-leading 110 tackle season a year ago, safety Marcus Allen continues to lead the way with linebackers Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen with 19, 15 and 15 total tackles this season, respectively. Nationally, the numbers aren’t enough for any single Nittany Lion to crack the top 156 in tackles per game.
Similarly, the outstanding performances of Penn State’s special teams units, ranked among the nation’s best for punt and kick return defense, have demonstrated a commitment to team success this season.
Wrapping the collection of individuals into the singular team identity with unified goals, the result has been a rare combination of outsized talent and selflessness that Smith acknowledged as being unique to his experience in the game.
“I’ve never been a part of something where there are so many talented people on a team that no one has egos or anything like that,” said Smith. “Ultimately, I think we have a lot of guys who have taken a pretty mature approach. It's just the next game and we want to do some impressive things this year, special things, and that includes winning the next game.”
Should the Lions continue that approach, one focused on a step-by-step road to accomplishing their collective goals, the potential rewards could be just as unique as the formula that brought them to fruition.
All of it, however, begins and ends with the next opponent on the Nittany Lions’ schedule. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, then, the Lions will be looking to capitalize on that next opportunity.
“We're really excited to get into Big Ten play. Iowa is going to be a great environment for us to play in. Tough place to play obviously. They have had a lot of success at home the last few years,” said Smith. “We're just going to have fun and do our process and work really hard this week to prepare for them, and just enjoy it and make the most out of it.”