The play of Penn football’s defense in 2014 was, well, indefensible.
The Quakers struggled mightily to stop opposing offenses a year ago, surrendering an average of 31.9 points per game. While quarterback Alek Torgersen and his short-yardage passing attack did a respectable job of putting points on the board, the defense’s inability to keep the team in games sunk Penn to a 2-8 overall record.
The nexus of the team’s defensive failings was its secondary. The Red and Blue ranked near the bottom of the Ivy League in nearly every pass defense statistic, from passing yards allowed per game (272.8, seventh in the Ancient Eight) to interceptions (six, seventh in the conference) to defensive touchdowns (zero).
To make matters worse, the secondary lost starters Evan Jackson — its top statistical performer and the team’s leading tackler — and former second team All-Ivy safety Dan Wilk to graduation.
And although he was not a defensive back, the unit will also suffer from the departure of captain and team leader Dan Davis.
However, new defensive coordinator Bob Benson feels that the team has plenty of potential leaders ready to assert themselves within the Quakers' secondary.
“The key to the leadership is going to be [senior linebacker Tyler] Drake and [senior linebacker] Jack Madden,” Benson said. “We’ve got some depth, we’ve just got to figure it out.”
Despite the major losses, the secondary, along with the defense in general, will be dominated by veterans. Seven of the 11 projected starters — and three of the four first-stringers in the defensive backfield — will be seniors. However, while well-seasoned, the unit largely lacks on-field experience: Of those four starters, none have more than eight career starts entering 2015.
Senior cornerback Kevin Ijoma paces the unit with eight starts to his name, and he sees promise in the secondary, specifically when it comes to their cohesive, team-first mentality.
“Our team culture is a lot different. We’re a lot closer than we have been in the past,” Ijoma said. “I just can’t really explain it. Every day, everyone’s just focused on getting better. Everyone’s just all in it for each other. It’s much better than it’s been in the past.”
Part of that change is attributable to the major shift in coaching structure that took place over the summer. Following former head coach Al Bagnoli’s retirement (and prompt unretirement to take the same position at Columbia), Ray Priore moved from defensive coordinator — a position he had held since 1999 — to the top coaching job after a season as head coach-in-waiting. In turn, Benson replaced Priore as the defense’s boss and immediately started implementing major changes.
“We’re installing an entirely new defense,” Benson said. “Anytime you do that, you have to be very, very organized and prepared. And the name of the game is that it’s a people business. The players have to trust you, and you have to trust them.”
Senior safety Ian Dobbins credits the change in team culture largely to the new faces in on-field leadership.
“Aside from the coaching staff changes, we have three brand new captains seniors — Ryan O’Malley, Dan Connaughton and Drake,” Dobbins said. “They’re very good leaders, and I think they’ll be able to lead the team to a successful year.”
It's clear that the offseason has been one of immense change, both culturally and personnel-wise for the Red and Blue. What remains to be seen, however, is whether that change will translate to positive results on the field — and in most cases, a largely inexperienced and unheralded unit led by a collection of brand new coaches would not exactly be reason for optimism.
But after a disastrous 2014 season, change was exactly what Penn football’s secondary needed.
And to hear the players and coaches tell it, change is exactly what they got.Comments powered by Disqus
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