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Starting from zero: Manny Diaz on Penn State defense in 2023

If the Nittany Lion defense wants to build upon its success for 2023, it won’t be by taking anything for granted.



Penn State football, Manny Diaz, Anthony Poindexter, James Madison
Apr 23, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Manny Diaz on the field during a warmup prior to the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

State College, PA — James Franklin’s football program was in an unusual position last year. Historically a stalwart of consistency, the Penn State defense experienced a change in leadership as Manny Diaz replaced long-time defensive coordinator Brent Pry. But as summer shifted to fall, the question marks surrounding the defense faded as Diaz led an elite unit on Penn State’s march to a Rose Bowl victory.

Now, expectations for the Penn State defense are as high as they’ve been in the James Franklin era. However, as Manny Diaz made clear during Tuesday night’s open practice and media availability, you shouldn’t expect to find any Nittany Lion defenders resting on their laurels.

The Penn State defense was an elite unit in 2022

Under Brent Pry, the Penn State defense had one of its best statistical years of the last decade in 2021. Yet, Diaz arguably improved upon that success last fall. Defensive production in 2022 outpaced 2021 in almost every major statistical category. Sacks and turnovers increased significantly, while yards allowed per play dropped. Diaz’s defense held its opponents under 20 points nine times, something it only did six times the year prior. Further still, the defense peaked at the end of the season, allowing roughly 12 points a game over the Nittany Lions’ final five games.

While the Lions lose several key pieces to the NFL Draft, many of the breakout stars from last year’s defense return for 2023. Replacing Joey Porter, Jr. is no small feat, but Kalen King has already earned acclaim as the best cornerback in the Big Ten for this upcoming year. Abdul Carter was named a freshman All-American last year, but — according to Diaz — has his sights set much higher. Chop Robinson was statistically the best pass rusher in the country in 2022, and he wasn’t even technically a starter.

Diaz: ‘Starts again at zero’

With 75% of its production returning, it would be understandable for the Penn State defense to buy into its own hype. But when asked how things are different in year two, Manny Diaz made it clear that the defense’s mentality has remained the same.

“…this time last year, we were still getting to know each other,” Diaz said Tuesday. “We were schematically really learning the ins and outs of what was going on. So you can tell in year two there’s that familiarity with it that makes it easier in some ways. But that can distract you from really what it takes to build a defense, and defense has to be rebuilt every year.”

“We do not pick up where we left off a year ago,” Diaz continued. “And that comes back to how we run to the football, how we leverage the football, how we set edges, our toughness, and how we tackle in the spring…And we made our point very clear that you know, it starts again on zero. And we have to build it from one to two to three and go on from that. So that’s really where our focus has been.”

Looking ahead, defensive consistency will be critical going into 2023. Although expectations for the offense are high under likely starter Drew Allar, breaking in a new quarterback (whoever he may be) is bound to come with some bumps. The Nittany Lions start the season with four Power 5 games — including three Big Ten opponents — in September. If the defense can handle its business and let the offense work out its growing pains, then Penn State can enter the second half of the year with everything to play for.

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Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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