After losing several key seniors following last season, defensive coordinator Ray Priore knew that some of his underclassmen would need to step in to fill their shoes.
And just when duty called, the Dans came to the rescue. Yes, that’s plural.
This season, junior defensive back Dan Wilk and sophomore linebacker Dan Davis have more in common than just a name and a hotel room they share as roommates on team road trips. Both have also emerged as stars of the Quakers’ young defense.
With 19 and 21 tackles recorded on the season respectively, Wilk and Davis are among the top five leading tacklers for Penn.
The pair attributes their success to hard work during the offseason.
“Both of us were ready to fill shoes this year and worked hard in camp,” Davis said.
Wilk said his motivation came from an incident with Priore during camp.
“Coach P is always preaching, ‘Next guy up, next guy up,’” the junior said. “And then one day he said, ‘How about you?’”
Wilk has proven to be a strong all-around cornerback, not only by recording the most broken up passes and pass deflections, but also by making plays against the run in the backfield.
“He’s not just [a] cover kid or a kid who can play run support,” Priore said. “He plays the run as well as he does the pass.”
Likewise, Davis has proven to be a true force against the run. Priore sometimes calls him a “heat-seeking missile,” because of his tremendous nose for the ball.
A former defensive lineman, slot receiver, punter and running back in high school, Davis has come into his own as a linebacker for the Quakers.
“[Davis] has tremendous instincts as a linebacker,” Priore said. “See ball, find ball, get ball. That’s what he does.”
Davis admits that his biggest challenge has been learning Penn’s playbook.
“Priore has so many ideas going on in his head, it can be hard to decipher it all in laymen’s terms,” he said.
After coaching more experienced defenses in the past, Priore has tried to take it easier on his “young puppies.”
“There’s no doubt we had to simplify with a lot of young kids playing,” Priore said. “I had to tame it down early and build it up to the more complex things.”
Given Penn’s 3-4 base defense, Priore is hoping to apply more pressure from the outside to force turnovers. Wilk thinks the philosophy fits well with the defense’s skills.
“We have a lot of speed on defense so we can have guys coming from all different angles,” Wilk said. “It keeps offensive lines guessing.”
For Davis, the success of the defensive scheme comes down to senior captain Brandon Copeland.
“When you have Big Daddy there on the edge, double- and triple-teams form [and] it opens up a lot of holes for linebackers and blitzing safeties,” he said.
Though both Wilk and Davis have gotten good pressure against opposing offenses, it has rarely converted into turnovers. The Quakers are last in the Ivy League with just two takeaways through four games.
“We definitely need to increase turnovers and set up our offense a little better,” Davis said.
Going into this weekend’s game against Columbia, Penn’s defense is working on the three T’s: tackles, turnovers and third downs.If the young Quakers defense can’t contain a Columbia offense that averages just 10.8 points per game, it will certainly struggle against Ivy heavyweights like Harvard and Cornell.