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How Manny Diaz Improved an Elite Defense

Despite loads of turnover, Manny Diaz kept the Nittany Lions’ defense playing at an elite level in 2022.



Oct 1, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Nick Tarburton (46) reacts after recovering a fumble during the second quarter against the Northwestern Wildcats at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Northwestern 17-7. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, James Franklin had to replace a defensive coordinator for only the second time at Penn State. His choice was Manny Diaz, who was less than a week removed from being ousted as head coach at Miami.

There was much speculation coming into the season about what Penn State’s defense would look like under Diaz. Philosophically, it appeared the Nittany Lions’ defensive approach would remain intact. But Franklin and Diaz promised a much more aggressive style of play would find its way to the field this season.

There was also apprehension in terms of what Diaz had to replace. Statistically, Penn State touted an elite defense in 2021. Even if Manny Diaz was a home run hire, the defense couldn’t be that good again, right? Well, yes. Penn State’s defense wasn’t going to be that good again. Because, in many ways, Diaz actually made the defense better.

New face, same results

Historically, the defense has never been the issue at Penn State. But Brent Pry had put together one of the best Nittany Lion defenses of recent memory before leaving to take the Virginia Tech head coaching job last year. Pry’s defense was near the top of the nation in many categories, most notably scoring, where it ranked in the top ten.

Under Diaz, the defense either mostly held serve or improved in most statistical categories. Diaz’s squad allowed an average of 18.2 points per game, up slightly from 17.3 in 2021. However, the 2022 defense held its opponents under 20 points nine times, something it only did six times the year prior.

The defensive production in 2022 outpaced 2021 in almost every other major statistical category. Yards per play dropped slightly from 4.7 to 4.6. But because the defense was on the field for fewer plays in 2022, total yards per play allowed declined by almost 30.

Penn State was also able to force a significantly higher number of negative plays. In 2021, one of the defense’s most prominent issues was not getting the pass rush home. This was a priority for Diaz and Franklin this season. Penn State recorded 43 sacks, up 17 from 2021. Already an area of success, the Nittany Lions were able to improve upon turnovers, forcing five more in 2022 than the previous season.

If at first, you don’t succeed…

In recent years, one of the most glaring issues with Penn State’s defense was its inability to hold up in the biggest games. While acknowledging that the blame in many instances also rests with conservative or ineffective offensive play, the record speaks for itself. A blown lead late against Ohio State in 2017. Failure to stop another comeback from the Buckeyes in 2018. Giving up 24 first-half points to Minnesota in 2019. Allowing Iowa to claw back a win in 2021. The list could go on.

Early on in 2022, it appeared that this defense would fall victim to the same issue. Diaz’s group was mauled against Michigan, allowing 418 yards on the ground in a 45-17 rout. Physically dominated, Penn State’s defense was also mentally outfoxed. The Lions’ defenders seemed unprepared for the Wolverines to break tendencies in their run game, most notably the use of movement at the point of attack.

Two weeks later against Ohio State, it seemed that the defense had improved dramatically from its experience in Ann Arbor. Penn State held the dynamic Buckeye offense to 16 points through 51 minutes of play. But it all quickly unraveled in the final nine minutes, allowing 28 unanswered points in that span. As stout as it looked against lesser opponents, Diaz’s defense showed that it was not up to the task against stiffer competition.

However, that narrative was reversed against Utah in the Rose Bowl. Penn State held the Utes’ rushing attack, ranked in the top ten nationally, to 70 yards in the second half. Utah, who averaged 40 points per game, was essentially held scoreless outside the second quarter, only adding their third touchdown in garbage time. The Utah offensive line was the most physical Penn State had faced since Michigan, but the Nittany Lions won the day with six total sacks.

Sure, winning one game doesn’t necessarily erase a six-year trend of heartbreaking losses. But Manny Diaz and this defense learned from its mistakes throughout 2022. For the first time since 2016, Penn State defeated a top-ten team. And a good chunk of the credit goes to the defense’s ability to snuff out Utah’s prolific offense for most of the night in Pasadena.

Springboard to next season

It was evident that Penn State’s defense was improving as it learned Diaz’s system throughout the year. That growth was on full display at the end of the season.

Over its final five games, Penn State allowed 61 total points, or slightly over 12 points a game. The Nittany Lions shut out Maryland, who came into the contest averaging 34 points per game. Utah was the only opponent who scored more than 20 points, and it crossed that threshold by a single point.

Moving forward, the expectations for this group will remain high. Despite losing veteran leadership from PJ Mustipher, Ji’Ayir Brown, and Joey Porter, Jr., many talented defenders return across all position rooms.

Kalen King, for instance, proved in 2022 that he is ready to be the Nittany Lions’ top corner. King finished the season with 18 pass breakups and three interceptions, including a pick of Cam Rising in the Rose Bowl.

Chop Robinson will likely continue to be a force up front as he transitions into a starter’s role. Despite missing two games due to injury, Robinson still finished the year with the second-most sacks on the team.

Abdul Carter has already claimed his spot as the next great at “Linebacker U.” Carter was second on the team in tackles in his true freshman season. While he draws numerous comparisons to Micah Parsons, Carter is already on his way to having a better collegiate career. Carter has as many sacks in one season as Parsons did in his career at Penn State.

More names will likely also enter the fold. Dani Dennis-Sutton, Kevin Winston, and Cam Miller, to name a few, are young talents those around the program feel can expand their roles in 2023 and beyond.

The pieces are falling into place for Manny Diaz to help Penn State attempt a historic run in 2023. But the defense can’t be better than it was in 2022, right? Well, after this season, I’m not sure I’m ready to rule it out.


Sean Clifford has some bold statements ahead of the NFL Draft

On Friday, Sean Clifford had some bold statements ahead of the NFL Draft in mid-April.



Penn State veteran Sean Clifford, Penn State football
Sep 17, 2022; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) takes a snap during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

STATE COLLEGE, PA — On Friday, the Penn State Nittany Lions held their pro day at the school’s football facilities. There, 6-year Penn State football quarterback Sean Clifford made an impact on pro scouts, and made some bold claims about his combine snub and NFL hopes. Whether you love him or hate him, Penn State veteran Sean Clifford believes in himself, and believes that he is ready for what professional football has for him.

Penn State veteran Sean Clifford believes that he is ready for for the NFL

Here is some of what Penn State veteran Sean Clifford had to say during his pro day performance on Friday.

“I feel like I was snubbed with the Combine for sure,” Clifford said. “The body of work that I’ve had with these teams here; when I didn’t see my name as a Combine guy, I felt disrespected for sure. But, hey, it’s just more fuel to the fire.

“Being able to come out here, show the scouts what I got, and being able to really just put on a show, it’s been a lot of fun, and a good way to cap off a great career at Penn State. So I’m really thankful.”

Sean Clifford has an impressive body of work with Penn State football

During his six years in State College, Penn State veteran Sean Clifford broke numerous Penn State football records — such as passing yards, passing touchdowns, and more. Additionally, Clifford became the winningest Penn State quarterback of all-time, compiling a 33-15 record and two New Year’s Six bowls during his four seasons as a starter.

When asked how he through his pro day went, Penn State veteran Sean Clifford claimed that it went “Really well … Especially getting out there and being able to show my speed. I think that’s something I really wanted to come in and kind of re-prove. I know that I’ve shown speed on film. But I wanted to come out here and post a good time. So being able to post a 4.57[-second 40-yard-dash], I’m proud of that number.”

Now that his pro day has passed, Sean Clifford has his attention on getting into the NFL — he will likely be signed after the draft as not many teams are in need of a 24-year-old quarterback. Still, he believes that all he needs is a chance.

“I just need to be in a camp,” Clifford said. “I just need to be able to be in a practice with the pros. Because I know I’m a pro, [and] I know I can come in and add value to a team. I know that more than anything. I still think that I can play in the [NFL], 100 percent, provide to a team, win games, the same way I did here.

“So it’s just being able to come out, talk to as many scouts as possible, get to know some coaches. It’s just being able to get around a bunch of teams, because I truly feel like no matter where I’m at, I could add a substantial amount of value.”

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Penn State quarterback room dips in annual ESPN rankings

The Nittany Lions are a few spots down from where the 2022 QB room ranked.



Drew Allar, 2023 QB rankings

STATE COLLEGE, PA — Ahead of every college football season, ESPN ranks the top quarterback rooms in the sport. Seeing as QB is the most important position on the field, this ranking is a pretty important indication of how a team’s offense will perform throughout the year — ESPN ranks the entire room, not just the team’s starting quarterback. This week, ESPN released its 2023 QB rankings, and the Nittany Lions — led by sophomore Drew Allar — found themselves a few spots lower than they did a season ago.

Where did Penn State football rank in 2022?

With Sean Clifford and Drew Allar headlining Penn State’s quarterback room in 2022, ESPN ranked the Nittany Lions at No. 11 nationally a season ago. After winning the Rose Bowl and finishing 11-2 overall, Penn State football lost two of its three QBs from the 2022 room — Sean Clifford is graduating, and Christian Veilleux has entered the transfer portal.

With only Drew Allar remaining from last year’s room, many thought that this preseason dip in the rankings was inevitable; after all, no one has truly seen Allar or Pribula play ball yet.

Where do Drew Allar and Penn State fall in the 2023 QB rankings?

This year, Penn State comes in at No. 15 nationally in the 2023 QB rankings — just four spots down from last year’s rankings despite losing 2/3 of the room and a veteran starting quarterback. With the nation’s No. 1 recruit from 2022 — Drew Allar — at the helm this year, Penn State fans are hoping for much bigger and better than what the program got under Sean Clifford.

Behind Drew Allar is fellow sophomore Beau Pribula, who has been turning heads during spring ball this far, and could find himself a stand alone role on the Penn State offense this year. According to James Franklin, his most attractive trait is that he boasts an opposite skillset than what Sean Clifford and Drew Allar have.

Behind Pribula at QB3 is true freshman Jackson Smolik.

What is the expectation for Allar & Co. this year?

After four years of Sean Clifford, all Penn State fans are ready to turn the page. While Clifford’s teams had some great seasons — such as 2019 and 2022 which both won 11 games and New Year’s Six bowls — he was never enough to get the Nittany Lions to the next level. Now, Penn State needs to get more from the massive Drew Allar and his counterparts.

As I have written before, the Penn State Nittany Lions do not need Allar to be elite in 2023 to make the CFP. That being said, if Penn State wants to win a national title, elite is the only thing that can be expected of Drew Allar. We will know a lot more about this year’s offense on September 2nd when Penn State kicks off its 2023 season at home against West Virginia; for now, the expectations for Allar and Co. are all over the place.

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Penn State needs KeAndre Lambert-Smith to be a true No. 1, Franklin says

The Nittany Lions need their veteran wide receiver to be one of the best in the Big Ten this year.



Penn State football KeAndre Lambert-Smith
Nov 27, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith (13) runs after a catch during the second quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

STATE COLLEGE, PA — Heading into the 2023 season, the Penn State Nittany Lions are losing some solid talent at the wide receiver position. A season ago, standouts like Parker Washington, Mitchell Tinsley, and Brenton Strange were some of Sean Clifford’s favorite targets; however, as we turn the page to a brand new season this fall, Penn State football will be without all three of these pass-catchers. In year one of the Drew Allar era, head coach James Franklin claims that the Nittany Lions need KeAndre Lambert-Smith to be a true No. 1 receiver.

Penn State football news KeAndre Lambert-Smith to be a true No. 1 receiver

The Penn State football team is looking solid at wide receiver right now despite all of its departures from the 2022 squad. The Nittany Lions managed to add two solid receivers from the transfer portal and still have some in-house talent that they can fall back on. That being said, Penn State needs one man to go above and beyond this year: KeAndre Lambert-Smith.

A season ago, Lambert-Smith caught 24 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns — his best performance of the year came against No. 8 Utah in the Rose Bowl game on January 2nd; there, he hauled in three passes for 124 yards and a touchdown during the Nittany Lions’ 14-point win over the Utes. After the Rose Bowl performance, KeAndre Lambert-Smith claimed that, while the 11-2 season was nice, Penn State football is looking for bigger and better in 2023.

James Franklin says Lambert-Smith needs to be a top performer in the Big Ten, not just at Penn State

Here is what head coach James Franklin had to say about KeAndre Lambert-Smith during his media availability on Tuesday afternoon:

“He’s been really good so far this spring,” Franklin said. “We need him to be THE guy, a true number one [receiver], not just at Penn State but really in the [Big Ten] and a guy that people are talking about nationally.”

James Franklin added that Penn State is still figuring out some depth issues when it comes to the wideout room. “There is going to be a competition really with all of [Penn State’s receivers] — I think that is probably one of the big question marks between now and the first game.”

After an incredible 2022 season, the Penn State football team is looking for even better results from its offense. Right now, the quarterback, running back, offenisve line, and tight ends all appear to be somewhat in place; however, as the spring goes on, the Lions must figure out who will start and who will sit when it comes to their receivers. The one thing that we do know for sure: KeAndre Lambert-Smith is going to be a crucial factor in Penn State’s passing game this fall.

Thank you for reading Basic Blues Nation. Please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news and insights on your favorite Penn State athletics.

For feedback, questions, concerns, or to apply for a writing position, please email us at or direct message us on our social media. It’s due to your support that we can become one of the market’s fastest-growing Penn State sports outlets!

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