As Penn State enters into the conference schedule, it does so with an offense that leads the Big Ten in total touchdowns, a defense that has made the most tackles for loss and a special teams unit that has more punt return yards than any other. Solid all-around performances in all three phases have given the Nittany Lions a 3-0 record and, more, helped them outscore opponents by an average of 47-5. A key ingredient to success that cannot be quantified from the nonconference schedule, however, is how they’ve done it.
It hasn’t been flawless, or free from errors, misreads, or stray passes. There’s even been a turnover here and there. But the total approach that has been put forth across the board is something that has been encouraging to coaches.
They haven’t only noticed it on gamedays inside Beaver Stadium, either. Practices have been consistent throughout the week and even on their day off players are gathering more often to study film on their own. With so many varying outcomes possible in the game of football, they’re buying into the one-word idea now more than ever: effort.
“We preach effort around here more than buckle your chin strap,” says running backs coach Charles Huff. “It’s a good sign when the kids are starting to understand that effort is something that I’ve got to do everything single time. We tell our guys all the time that’s one thing you can control. Whether you’re 6-foot-5 or 5-9, or whether (you run the 40-yard dash in) a 4.3 or a 5.3, you can control your effort.”
Now they're aiming to maintain heading into the conference slate and the first road game of the season Saturday at Iowa.
Through the first quarter of the regular season, wide receiver Brandon Polk has been case in point. After missing almost the entirety of his second season due to injury, for which he was given a redshirt, Polk has returned in a reserve role and caught one pass in each game, including a 15-yarder for a score against Georgia State.
But the play that might have had fans talking more was the 85-yard TD in the first quarter – and not just about Saquon Barkley, who was the star of the highlight. They were also beaming about Polk, who at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds chased Barkley down from the backside in order to cut off a defender and escort his teammate into the end zone. If Barkley has sub-4.4 speed, imagine Polk’s.
Saquon Barkley, scoring touchdowns. pic.twitter.com/tnaUQbjQ9N
— BlueWhiteIllustrated (@BWIonRivals) September 17, 2017
“When we recruited Brandon speed was his plus, size was his negative, but the positive of his speed outweighed the negative of his size,” Huff said. “What we were trying to do at an early stage (of his college career), we were trying to get him to play with his strengths and that was his speed. As a young player he knew he was fast but he didn’t know the importance of always playing fast. Now he’s starting to get the grips of that. Obviously he battled through some injuries. He’s feeling great now. Getting him to understand, ‘Because of my strength – speed – because of my limitation with size, the only way I can be successful is if I always use my strength.' That is what he’s been doing.”
Downfield blocking was not something Polk focused on constantly in high school. When he played in spot duty as a true freshman as mostly a sweep specialist in 2015, he wasn’t asked to do it much then either. As he’s looking to take on a larger role within the 2017 offense, he’s realizing – and embracing – that mixing it up with defenders who might have 10, 20 or more pounds on him is just part of the job description.
He’s not avoiding the contact. In fact he’s been racing toward it.
“I take a lot of pride in that because I know (teammates) out there who are blocking for me, they are going to give everything they can,” Polk said. “I don’t care how big, how small they are. They are going to give everything that they can. So for me, even being a smaller guy, I’m going to give everything I can for them. And if I don’t give them the best block, then I’m frustrated and mad at myself because I know that if they were put in that situation, they are going to do their best for me.”
A more regularly-occurring showcase of effort happens on almost every one of Penn State’s 24 kickoffs. Athletes are sprinting toward the end zone as if it’s a race. They want to be first to either tackle the returner or at least change his direction into the lane of someone else.
That’s the first objective. If the ball crosses in for a touchback, then the next objective is to beat the person running beside you, crossing into the end zone as though a ribbon marks the finish line.
“I think the one thing everybody can evaluate is how hard our guys play on special teams,” added Huff. “For me, that’s the foundation, if you are going to have a good special teams. Your guys have to play hard. When I say your guys – everybody. It goes back to the leadership. It goes back to the buy in. Nick Scott is obviously our special teams captain and he’s challenged the guys on multiple occasions, saying, ‘Hey, anyone who beats me down the field, I’ll do 50 pushups.' "
What Huff has noticed is younger players like Garrett Taylor, Irvin Charles and Ayron Monroe are following in Scott’s footsteps, eager to make the most of their limited action and get a chance to not only make a tackle but also force the vet to kiss the dirt from the push-up position.
It’s Scott who holds his teammates accountable, and sets the wagers, but the standard derives from Huff.
When Lamont Wade, for example, stopped 25 yards short of the end zone in the second quarter against Akron, instead stopping to talk a little trash to the opponent on a touchback, it was Huff who raced out onto the field to give his five-star freshman an earful. While his teammates were jogging back to the sideline, Huff forced Wade, on an empty field, to finish off his run all the way to the goal line, just for good measure. Even if effort is something you can't measure.