Change is inevitable.
Nothing continues forever … except for time and, perhaps, space, but that’s not the point. This isn’t about science; it’s about football.
At the end of last season, Penn found itself at a crossroads. As has been retold dozens of times, legendary coach Al Bagnoli’s tenure was coming to a close and defensive coordinator Ray Priore was his replacement-to-be.
When Priore took over, he had a few orders of business to take care of. The first decision, or at least the first publicly announced decision, was hiring new defensive coordinator Bob Benson.
“I’m thrilled to add someone of Bob’s experience to our staff,” Priore said in a statement at the time of Benson’s hiring. “We shared our first coaching jobs at Albany, and he has found success at every level since that time.”
Benson spent last season as a defensive coordinator for Albany, where he helped turn around a defense that ranked 102nd in the FCS before his tenure to 42nd last season.
Coincidentally, Benson came full circle as a coach that season. He began coaching as a graduate assistant at Albany while Priore was there as defensive backs coach.
Then, in early February, Priore announced the hiring of John Reagan, formerly the offensive coordinator at Kansas and Rice. While with the Owls, Reagan led the offense to two of its three most productive seasons in school history.
Just as Benson did, Reagan began his coaching career at Albany, albeit nearly 10 years later. However, Reagan has coached on the same staff as Priore before, as the former served as Penn’s tight ends coach in 1997.
“The guys that we’ve brought in, we all knew each other. It’s putting the band back together again,” Priore said. “They’re bringing a great sense of energy and freshness to everything.”
So while all three coaches had crossed paths in various capacities in their coaching journeys, last spring was their first chance to put together a shared vision and begin implementing their systems with the team.
“When I went out and hired both John and Bob, both friends, very accomplished, very knowledgeable, I wanted them to be able to come in and implement their schemes. They are an extension of my office; we’re building this together,” Priore said.
The vision, as Priore describes it, is simple: “Play with pride, a hard-hat mentality, a toughness, a grit, a grind."
On the defensive side of the ball, Benson is installing his new defensive scheme — a 3-4 pressure defense — and methodically prepare his players for opening day.
“There’s challenges. There’s new terminology, new language, new personalities. Everyone has to get to know each other, and you need to be a very effective teacher,” Benson said.
Benson puts emphasis on the team running to the ball and creating turnovers and on the team’s need to be able to adjust during games in the modern world of spread offenses. Penn struggled at times last season with creating turnovers, notching only eight takeaways during its seven league games.
On offense, Reagan wasn’t at liberty to talk much about specific schemes, but he did emphasize the same “blue-collar” principles that Benson and Priore did. What does that actually mean for Penn’s offense?
College football has become very spread-oriented in the past decade, and it became even more apparent last year for the Red and Blue as the team relied heavily on a short passing game. Penn will likely try to put some emphasis back on its running game, which suffered last year due to a slew of injuries. In 2015, the Quakers managed just 3.4 yards per carry.
“I don’t know if a schematic change requires a change in culture,” Reagan said. “With a new head coach and two new coordinators, there’s a change in culture … but not because of the scheme of the offense necessarily.
Change may be inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Priore sees the coaching changes as an opportunity to re-energize the team and build the team culture.
“You need to coach not only the physical parts of it, but the mental parts. There’s a culture — you hear that all the time with the [Philadelphia] Eagles and coach [Chip] Kelly. We got to bring that same culture,” Priore said.
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