Even without their lead 'Wild Dog,' Penn State D-line expects to remain a strength

(Greensburg) Tribune-Review (TNS)
Shane Simmons

Two of last year’s most prominent Wild Dogs have moved on from Penn State.

The leader of the pack has, too.

But the Nittany Lions' defensive line believes it can still be dogged.

Plenty of talent remains at defensive end and tackle for Penn State in 2020, even if a player at each position was taken in the NFL draft last month. And even if the only position coach these defensive linemen have known — the incomparably extroverted Sean Spencer — likewise departed for the NFL.

“Everyone can lead for the D-line,” fifth-year senior defensive end Shane Simmons said Wednesday. “(Spencer) really (cultivated) a very close group. We have been through a lot together — on the field, off the field, personal stuff everything.

“It starts up front (on the D-line). If we aren’t tight up front, then everything else falls apart in the back. I think (the defensive line) will have a really good season with (new position coach John Scott).”

"Coach Chaos" leaves: Scott in February became just the Nittany Lions’ third defensive line coach since 1996. He replaces Spencer, who was hired away by the New York Giants. Spencer was one of only three remaining assistants left from James Franklin’s original Penn State staff in 2014. Spencer succeeded 18-year PSU D-line coach Larry Johnson.

Known as “Coach Chaos” for his demonstrative, gregarious personality and one of the stars of the HBO special “24/7” show about Penn State football last fall, Spencer coined the nickname “Wild Dogs” for his unit.

“We are all really proud of him,” Simmons said. “… He spoke to us and told us in person (he was leaving). It wasn’t a surprise. We knew that it was the best decision for him.”

John Scott

Scott can’t match Spencer’s energetic personality. Few can. But Scott does have two decades of experience coaching defensive linemen, including two in the NFL.

While the coronavirus pandemic has prevented the Nittany Lions’ defensive linemen from getting to know Scott as much as they otherwise would have, so far he’s been making a positive impression.

“He knows the game really well,” Simmons said. “He’s smart. He’s a real technical coach. He’s not Spence like with the rah-rah stuff. He’s not off the wall, but … I like really like him.”

Gross-Matos, Windsor gone: Scott is presiding over a positional unit that lost a second-round pick in end Yetur Gross-Matos and a sixth-round tackle in Robert Windsor. Those two combined for 13 sacks and 80 total tackles in 2019.

But senior end Shaka Toney and tackle Antonio Shelton return as veteran holdovers. They join tackles P.J. Mustipher, Fred Hansard and Judge Culpepper and ends Jayson Oweh, Adisa Isaac and Simmons with varying degrees of extensive experience on the PSU defensive line. There also are some freshmen the Nittany Lions are excited about.

Simmons looks to reach potential: Of all PSU’s defensive linemen, though, none arrived on campus with a higher recruiting rating then Simmons. He was rated by 247 Sports as nation’s 41st-best overall recruit and fourth-best weakside defensive end in the 2016 incoming class.

But Simmons’ career hasn’t yet lived up to that billing. He was honorable mention all-freshman Big Ten in 2017 but a foot injury delayed and hampered his redshirt sophomore season. Last year as a rotational player, Simmons had 19 tackles (7 solo, 2 for loss).

“It’s not what I planned,” Simmons said of his career, “but the story isn’t finished yet. And I still believe that I can leave my mark at Penn State. This is a really important year for me.”

Simmons joins Toney, Oweh and Isaac as those most likely to be given significant reps in the rotation at end in 2020.

“Shane’s going to step up,” senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said. “I think he’s going to be a leader in that room, along with Shaka and Antonio. He works hard. He attacks practice, attacks the weight room, so he’s going to do good.”

Simmons said that even during the coronavirus-induced stay-at-home time of the past two months, he has gained five pounds. “Pure muscle,” he said.

“I’m trusting myself that anything is possible for me,” Simmons said, “and you will see great things from me in the fall.”