Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith is encouraged about what he’s seen from his position unit through Penn State’s first two games of the year. It’s not just because the two interceptions are already half the total of what his CBs snagged in 14 games last year, although that is certainly part of it.
More, Smith has an abundance of talent to work with. He has a rotation of three upperclassmen that he considers starters and he has four, including injured John Reid, who he thinks have a shot at the NFL in their not-so-distant future. The younger players coming up? They are following similar footsteps, if not already ahead of where the upperclassmen were as freshmen.
All of it combined – the work put in this off-season, the way they’ve flown around in the first two games, and the prospects who are just starting their careers – suggests to Smith that Penn State will soon be known for it’s CBs. It’s pushing a decade since the program had a draftee at the CB position, but Smith senses that’s about to change.
“I think we’re playing at an elite level,” he said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “I think we’re making plays on the football better than we have done the last three years here. I have a great group guys. They’re talented, they’re locked in and they prepare really, really well. They work hard during the week to perfect their craft. They’ve worked really hard in the off-season to get their footwork and eye discipline in place. It’s important to these guys, and it’s important that these guys want to make a name for themselves. We have LBU and the Wild Dogs up front. Our (CBs) want to make a name for themselves and that’s what they’ve done the first two games. It’s a long season. The third game is up and we’re just preparing for us to be able to make some plays when the play is presented to us.”
Among his three most experienced are in their fourth year with PSU and they have seen nearly an even amount of snaps throughout the first two weeks. Smith said that against Pittsburgh, Grant Haley played most, seeing 59 snaps. Amani Oruwariye played 55 and and Christian Campbell played 52.
Smith refers to Haley as “the guy,” or the “the grandpa,” of the CB meeting room and credits the position’s resurgence largely to the consistent efforts of Haley throughout his first three seasons with the program.
“He’s such a smart, great athlete, great football player, great person and great student.” Smith said. “When we recruit a corner, we want him to resemble what Grant Haley has done for us. I can’t say enough good things about him. The player he is, the person he is and his leadership in our room is why we’re playing at a high level right now.”
Although he played fewer snaps against Pitt, Campbell is listed on the official depth chart as the starter opposite of Haley, and Smith said he believes Campbell, who stands 6-foot-1 and 194 pounds, “has as much upside as anyone in the country.”
Oruwariye, meanwhile, is the all-important third corner in the rotation, and his flying interception against Akron in the opener, Smith added, represents the catching ability of his position unit – contrary to popular belief that DBs are athletes who struggle to catch.
For all three, in addition to Reid, he projects a professional future. He’s not into predictions – “I don’t want to be Nostradamus,” he quipped – but those four might just be just opening the floodgates.
“The top four corners we have right now I think all those guys have a legitimate chance to be drafted and a couple of them I think will be drafted extremely high,” he said. “Even our young guys, the way they’ve come in. The true freshman and the way they’ve come in, and Z-Mech, Zechariah McPhearson, the redshirt freshman. Those guys at this point are more advanced than this older group when they first came in. My job right now is to keep those guys rolling and keep pursuing greatness. Then time will tell.”
Update on the freshman CBs
Former five-star recruit Lamont Wade has been on campus since January. Throughout spring ball he was a secondary leader in interceptions and throughout the first two games of the season he’s seen time on defense and special teams, tallying three tackles.
“Lamont is doing a really nice job for the first two games,” Smith said. “He continues to grow. He continues to get better. The lights are not too big for him. He can see the game clearly. He understands the game. He’s a really smart football player. He’s the ultimate competitor. I’m just excited to see him every week just continue to get better, grow and get more familiar with our system. We give these guys a lot on their plate. They have to digest it and then go out there and put it to fruition, so he’s doing a real decent job. I’m excited on Saturday to see him a little bit more.”
While Wade was the talk of spring practice and some of camp, he wasn’t the first freshman to officially earn the right to play right away.
“To be accurate Tariq (Castro-Fields) was the first freshman on the roster to earn a stripe on the team this fall within a few weeks,” Smith said. “He had an instant impact. He’s done a really really nice job and he continues to grow and get better for us.”
Like Wade, Castro-Fields has seen moderate playing time on defense and special teams and his stat sheet is still minimal, with one assisted tackle. But for Smith, that’s no cause for concern. If anything, it’s all part of the track they’re on.
“They’re progressing as we plan on them to progress,” he said. “As the season grows on we want to have those guys ready for when we get into conference play.”
Joining Wade and Castro-Fields in the PSU’s Class of 2017 were fellow cornerbacks D.J. Brown and Donovan Johnson. Although they’re set to use redshirts for their first season, they have shown coaches that with time they, too, have the abilities needed to contribute.
“Those two guys are doing really well,” Smith said of Brown and Johnson. “Both guys run exceptionally well. They’re down at the practice squad right now and they are getting really, really good reviews down there. They had really good camps and next year those guys are going to be expected to step into the mix and compete this spring for jobs. We’re excited to have them. They’re both really, really good and talented kids who are smart.”
Despite injury John Reid’s presence still felt
An injury during spring practice set Reid back and it’s still unclear when he’ll make his full return to the lineup, although most guesses are that it won't be this year.
Even though he hasn’t been in pads for Penn State’s first two games, a junior and a full-time starter a year ago, Reid has contributed in the ways he can.
“He’s active on the sidelines with our signaling for the defensive calls,” Smith said "He’s also very active in our room, helping to improve our craft with technique, assignments, film study. He’s playing an instrumental role in our younger guys. We have two true freshmen who are seeing some time and a redshirt freshman who is seeing some time. (Reid) is really active with those guys in keeping them abreast with technique and game plan and how to go about studying and time management throughout the week to get themselves prepared.”