Penn State backup QB Tommy Stevens steps to the front on Blue-White day … but don’t sleep on James Franklin’s defense
STATE COLLEGE — It was a decent day for a tailgate in Centre County Saturday and for most Penn State fans in and around Beaver Stadium, that was a good enough reason to take in the annual Blue-White experience.
If you were looking for a competitive scrimmage, though, forget it. It was all Blue — just as James Franklin designed it — during a 26-0 thrashing that saw the White squad manage just one first down.
But … if you wanted to catch a glimpse at the future of the Penn State defense, you were in the right place.
The Nittany Lions emerged as 2016 Big Ten champs on the strength of their big-play offense. With Joe Moorhead calling the plays again and the Big Ten’s best player, Saquon Barkley, in the backfield to freak out defenses, the offense looks loaded again.
But PSU’s fortunes may be determined by a defense that could be faster and deeper in 2017.
Pass rusher Shareef Miller continues to improve in his third year. Young safety Ayron Monroe intercepted a pass. Outside linebacker Jarvis Miller, a converted safety, racked up seven tackles and had a sack.
And in a cameo, true freshman corner Lamont Wade provided a sneak peak at his considerable coverage skills, breaking up the first pass thrown his way.
My guess is the Lions and defensive coordinator Brent Pry are going to need Shareef Miller and Wade to grow into significant roles and Jarvis Miller provides some nice insurance at the linebacker spot with Brandon Bell gone.
Shareef Miller looks like a starter at one of the end spots. PSU is replacing Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, and the 6-5, 261-pound Miller picked up two sacks and another tackle for loss, barreling over 5-11, 187-pound backup quarterback Billy Fessler on one play. Hitting the QB is generally a no-no in these situations.
“Yeah, I wasn’t trying to hit Billy like that but you know, when you’re coming off the edge real fast, I got a little push from (offensive tackle) Sterling Jenkins,” said Shareef Miller, a redshirt sophomore.
“So when I hit (Fessler), I looked back at Sterling.”
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Shareef started out fast in 2016, picking up two sacks against Kent State in the opener. But that was his highlight moment.
This year, Miller has been praised throughout winter conditioning and spring ball. PSU expects more from him.
“I would just say, knowing the defense and knowing what the offense is doing,” Shareef Miller said when asked about what is different in 2017.
“It’s just help me play real fast and not think too much. Last year, I was thinking too much when I was out there. Now I have a full season out there and I can just go. … I can just play fast.”
And the defensive end group in general? Look for Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz to do the heavy lifting early but don’t be surprised if a younger player eventually emerges.
“I feel that the group is going to come back even stronger,” Shareef said.
“With me, Torrence, Buchholz being the experienced guys and you’ve got Shane Simmons, who is doing good. Shaka Toney’s doing real good, Daniel Joseph, I think we’re going to be pretty good this year.”
Wade has been the spring story on the back end of the defense, and his role could grow if corner John Reid misses the 2017 season with a knee injury.
Pry believes the 5-9, 193-pound Wade is a quick study, and a top athlete.
“The maturity, the way he approaches practice, his work ethic,” Pry said when asked what he likes about Wade.
“The guy should be getting ready for the prom and he’s out there competing against (wideout) Juwan Johnson. He’s just an impressive guy.
“He can handle a poor play and bounce right back. He’s got a lot of confidence for a young guy. He reminds me a lot of John Reid in how he studies the game. … He’s what I would call a ‘Tell him once, guy’. He doesn’t make many mistakes twice.”
So now we wait. August practices will tell Franklin and his coaches more about this team, and a defense that should be better than last year’s group.
Penn State’s Tommy Stevens talks after Blue-White game