Trusting a true freshman to start in the secondary at any level of college football is bold. Sending two out there at the same time is simply reckless.
In 2015, head coach Ray Priore and defensive coordinator Bob Benson had the guts to start three true freshmen in Penn football’s defensive backfield — and their brashness brought home the school’s 17th Ivy League championship.
And as the Red and Blue begin their quest to repeat as conference champs, sophomore defensive backs Mason Williams, Sam Philippi and Jyron Walker are set to pick up where they left off and prove one thing to the college football world: the former freshmen phenoms aren’t kids anymore.
“This year, moving forward and having returners play, it’s going to be our second year with this defensive style and coach Benson, so we’re really going to get after the quarterbacks and offensive coordinators of opposing teams,” Philippi said. “I think we’ll even be a better defense than last year.”
It wasn’t too hard to diagnose weaknesses when Penn football limped to a 2-8 finish in Al Bagnoli’s final season in 2014, but none was more glaring than the inability to stop the pass. Opposing teams shredded the Quakers to the tune of 272.8 passing yards per game, 8.1 yards per attempt, a 25-to-6 TD-INT ratio and a ridiculous overall passing efficiency of 152.1 — the 14th highest in the entire FCS.
So when that secondary saw two starters graduate, including leading tackler and two-time All-Ivy safety Evan Jackson, it was only natural for Penn to fear a repeat of the previous season’s results.
Enter the Class of 2019.
Being a true freshman isn’t easy at any college football program, but Ivy League regulations made the task for Penn’s trio even harder. Unlike Power 5 conferences which practice all summer long — that is, if the incoming freshman recruits don’t opt to graduate high school a semester early to get an even further headstart in spring ball — Ivy programs are only allowed 29 practices before the regular season.
And even with the time constraints, California natives Williams and Philippi earned starting roles right off the bat, initially being joined by returning senior starters Kevin Ijoma at cornerback and Ian Dobbins at safety.
“The best people play; at the end of the day, you earn everything that is given to you in terms of playing time,” said Benson, who also serves as the defensive backs’ position coach. “They get here as freshmen, and it’s not like other places where they spend the whole summer there, so they came in here — they had to do NSO — and tried to adjust to college and everything that comes with it, tried to learn new terminology and a new defense, new personalities, new coaches, so it’s just a very difficult situation.”
Like the rest of the 2015 Quakers, the secondary had its share of early struggles – none more notable than Dartmouth’s Dalyn Williams’ record-setting 23-for-25 performance while accounting for six touchdowns in the Big Green’s 41-20 shellacking of Penn in early October.
But Ijoma went down with an injury the following week when Penn hosted eventual FCS playoff qualifier Fordham, forcing Penn’s coaches to give Walker his own trial by fire in the second half. And although the Red and Blue’s epic comeback effort fell short in a 48-45 loss, Walker made four tackles as the team allowed only one second half touchdown after conceding five in the first half.
The small sample size was good enough for Benson; when Penn took the field a week later at Columbia, it suddenly found itself with three true freshmen starting in the secondary, and all three would stay there the rest of the way.
“I definitely came in trying my hardest to play as soon as possible; I’m a competitor and I just wanted to get on the field,” Williams said. “I was able to pick up on the schemes pretty well and I liked the fact that I got to play as soon as possible. I wasn’t coming in thinking that I was going to start every game; I just wanted to try my hardest and work as best as I could to maybe get on the field, but it happened a lot sooner than I thought it would.”
When all was said and done, Philippi finished with 46 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions — only two fewer than Penn’s entire team recorded in 2014 — Williams had 43 tackles and Walker secured 20 stops.
With all three freshmen starting from mid-October onwards, the Red and Blue embarked on a historic six-game win streak to stun the nation and secure a share of the conference title.
“It was obvious that they were young, going to make some mistakes, but they definitely were the best solution for Penn to win football games,” Benson said. “They are students of the game, they care deeply, and they are extremely talented young men, so it was pretty obvious that those three guys needed to be on the field.”
Certainly, the three rookies on the gridiron all found their own ways to contribute to Penn’s unprecedented turnaround, but a fellow newcomer on the sidelines was arguably more important than any of them. Following a phenomenal 2014 debut season as Albany’s defensive coordinator — when the Great Danes finished first in the nation in turnover margin and went 7-5 after being 90th in turnover margin with a 1-11 record in 2013 — Benson took his talents to Philadelphia to re-unite with Priore and made an immediate impact for the second consecutive year.
To say Penn’s secondary was perfect last year would be a stretch — its 135.99 defensive passing efficiency was the Ivy League’s second worst, and Penn gave up the most passing yards in the conference. But Benson’s blitz-happy, 3-4 scheme helped Penn leave its turnover troubles behind, as the Quakers secured 14 interceptions to vault to eighth in the nation in turnover margin after being a paltry 106th the year before.
“The moment we got on campus, Coach Benson preached turnovers; he wanted a turnover ratio, and we had quotas every practice,” Williams said. “He really pushes a very good pressure defense and he’s after the ball, so I think that we kind of feed off his leadership and his style of play-calling, and it definitely transitions onto the field and causes turnovers.”
Still, as impressive as the Quakers’ epic vault from sixth to first a season ago was, players and coaches understand that 2015 is in the past now. With the three returners all having completed their first offseason with the program, there’s room for even further improvement after an already stellar opening year.
“I think mentally it definitely helps us out [to have a full offseason] because we know the defense even better this year,” said Philippi, who was named to the 2016 preseason first team All-Ivy defense by both Football Gameplan and College Sports Madness, making him the only underclassman to gain the nod from either publication.
And as for what might happen even further down the road — they all have three more seasons of eligibility, remember — Ivy League quarterbacks best be on watch for years to come.
“We had three freshmen starting last year and we also have two or three other sophomores going to get a lot of playing time, so this year and the next two years coming, we definitely have a lot of potential,” Walker said. “We’re all definitely looking forward to what we can do — the sky is the limit.”
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