Tyler Drake had a pretty good 2015.
In the final season of his standout Penn career, the linebacker finished with 80 tackles, 8.5 sacks and two interceptions — good enough to earn him the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He seemed to come up biggest on the largest stages — he picked up a sack and two forced fumbles in a mega-upset of Villanova and notched 12 tackles and a sack in a season-defining win over Harvard.
But, following Drake’s graduation, the Red and Blue will be forced to reshuffle their linebacking corps as they look to repeat as Ivy champions. 12 of the unit’s 16 members from 2015 will return this season, but they must adjust to the loss of their best player.
“We have some really talented players in the program who had really good springs,” coach Ray Priore said. “Who would have imagined Tyler having the season that he had at this point last year?”
One player poised for a Drake-like breakout this season is junior Colton Moskal. After spending his freshman year in 2014 at Syracuse, the linebacker transferred to Penn and found immediate success, picking up 44 tackles over nine games.
“You have to trust the process. It’s a next-man-up mentality,” Moskal said of replacing Drake. “I’m sure someone will come in and fill that role. I can’t pinpoint one guy, since it’s such a team sport on defense.”
“We’re not looking for one guy to come in and be Tyler Drake,” linebackers coach Jon DuPont said. “We have good leadership on our defense. I think we’ll be just fine.”
The unit will also benefit from the addition of two new freshmen — Brendan O’Hara and Connor Jangro. Though they will likely not see much playing time off the bench, they will likely follow the path of marked year-by-year improvement that seems ubiquitous among the unit.
“Every year we’ve had freshman step up in places when needed,” Outside linebackers coach Jeff Smart said, citing the precocious play of then-freshman defensive back Sam Philippi in 2015. “We’re just going to play the best players.”
Moving into a leadership role in his senior season will be Donald Panciello, who finished second on the team to Drake with 61 tackles a season ago, earning honorable mention All-Ivy recognition.
Panciello seemed to always be in the center of the action, accounting for two of the season’s most pivotal plays — a 90-yard fumble recovery and touchdown at the end of the Villanova game and a block of Princeton’s game-winning field goal attempt as time expired in regulation of a come-from behind overtime win.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Panciello said, laughing. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
Though the New Jersey native bested Drake in terms of flair a season ago, he hopes to accumulate the eye-popping stats and provided veteran leadership that the star provided.
“He was a great player, obviously,” Panciello said. “He had all the stats, Defensive Player of the Year. It’s going to be hard to fill his shoes.”
It is also worth noting that Drake was far from the only defensive star lost to graduation. Safety Ian Dobbins — second team All-Ivy in his senior season — and linebacker Jack Madden both finished in the team’s top five in tackles, with Dobbins adding three interceptions.
However, the Quakers will return their third-leading tackler, junior linebacker Brandon Mills. The California native was a quiet contributor to the Ivy championship team, racking up two interceptions and a fumble recovery in addition to his 57 tackles.
The Red and Blue will also benefit from Philippi’s sophomore campaign. In 2015 the first-year player picked up four interceptions, tops on the team.
The defense, to be sure, has room to improve — the unit surrendered 26.8 points per game a season ago, third-worst in the conference — and that was before they lost the league’s best defensive player.
But it was enough to get the job done. With the high-octane offense fueled by Alek Torgersen and Justin Watson ready to take flight once again, the defense needn’t be perfect to keep Penn in games.
And while Drake’s departure will hurt, 2015 taught us one thing about Red and Blue: They will find a way.
So while many may see a hole in the team, the Quakers prefer to look at it as something else: an opportunity.
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