Penn State players laud Manny Diaz's aggressive defensive scheme during spring workouts

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Manny Diaz

Penn State's defense has undergone a shift for the first time in eight seasons after former defensive coordinator Brent Pry left for Virginia Tech.

New coordinator Manny Diaz has implemented his own scheme — one that has led players and coaches to laud its aggressiveness.

One player in particular has taken advantage of that aggression while making a change of his own.

Redshirt freshman Zakee Wheatley moved from cornerback to safety and in the process has earned himself the title of turnover king thus far through spring practice. Wheatley has five interceptions, according to senior safety Ji'Ayir Brown, and is one of the players who has stood out the most alongside him.

"Right now, our takeaway king, Zakee Wheatley, he's been doing an unbelievable job with the transfer from corner to safety," Brown said. "He's made plays that veteran guys struggle to make. He's standing out the most to me right now."

Wheatley is one of multiple players positioned to fight for the starting safety spot alongside Brown. He, Keaton Ellis and Jaylen Reed are all looking to make their mark and replace Jaquan Brisker, who ran out of eligibility and is expected to go in the first three rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft.

While Wheatley has the least experience at safety, Brown said his instincts have put him in a position to succeed despite the position switch this offseason.

"His instincts, I like to say he reminds me a lot of myself," he said. "Very instinctive player. The most important piece, he plays with passion. He goes out there and he plays hard and he lets his instincts just flow. And I think that causes him to run into a lot of plays and make a lot of plays for us. That's why he's been great so far."

The redshirt freshman played in four games at cornerback last season, preserving a year of eligibility with a redshirt, and is now taking with him the skills he learned at corner, according to cornerbacks coach and associate head coach Terry Smith.

"He's been fantastic," Smith said. "Zakee has elite ball skills. He has a knack to find the football. He did a nice job at corner in the fall for us and we moved him over to safety. He's making the adjustment well. ... The guy just has a tremendous ability to find the football and those guys, they tend to play for a long time."

Focus on quarterback development: Penn State has a quarterback room deep in talent but not experience, and part of the goal this spring was ensuring the youth in the room got enough reps. With a depleted offensive line, however, that was increasingly difficult for head coach James Franklin and his staff.

They were able to get players reps against coverage, but not necessarily in full team situations as often as they'd want.

"With our o-line situation (quarterback reps) are challenging," Franklin said. "We've been able to get the guys a bunch of skelly reps, but not enough team reps."

That led to the team shutting redshirt senior starting quarterback Sean Clifford down for portions of practice.

Him sitting out opened the door for the younger quarterbacks to get extra work and feel more comfortable within the offense.

"So really the last two practices we shut Sean down, not out of the entire practice, but out of periods of the practice, to allow the three other quarterbacks to get more team reps," Franklin said. "With an offensive line, with protection calls and those types of things. I think that's been really valuable."

The reps have given one of the young QBs — freshman and former five-star quarterback Drew Allar — the chance to show what he can do from a talent perspective. He didn't disappoint Brown, who's been impressed with his natural ability as a passer throughout the spring.

"Drew's got an unbelievable arm," Brown said. "His arm is crazy. He can throw from the right side of the field way back to the left side of the field accurately and efficiently. His arm is what's impressed me the most this spring. He's continuing to get better every day as well."

New Blue-White format: Penn State football's lack of offensive linemen has forced the team to pivot from the traditional format of the annual spring game.

This Saturday, instead of a Blue-White game with two full teams — usually one with starters and one with backups — it will likely be the offense facing the defense.

"Offense on one sideline, defense on the other sideline to help our o-line out," Franklin said. "And then also to get enough special teams situations in between."

On top of that, there will be aspects that make the game seem more like what it actually is — the 15th spring practice — rather than an instrasquad scrimmage.

Franklin said there will be periods with the live tackling that usually happens in a Blue-White game, but there will also be times where that isn't the case. Instead the team will go to "thud" tackling, where contact will suffice rather than bringing a player to the ground. The reasoning for that is the stage some players are at in their recoveries from injuries.

"We'll get some live work," he said. "But there's some players that aren't cleared for live but they are cleared for thud. So it allows us to get more guys reps. So it won't be a traditional spring game like we've had in the past."

The Blue-White game is free for all to attend and begins at 2 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium, with gates A and B opening at 12:30 p.m.

Quick Hitters:

Marquis Wilson is back at cornerback full-time, according to Smith, after playing there and wide receiver last season.

PJ Mustipher's rehab is going "really good" according to Franklin and is currently a little bit ahead of schedule.

Caedan Wallace, Olu Fashanu and Juice Scruggs went the entire spring with a high rep count because of offensive line depth issues.