Junior cornerback Jyron Walker is one of Penn's two returning starters in the position and will play a crucial role in getting his new counterparts up to speed.

Credit: Ilana Wurman

It’s no secret that if Penn football wants to pull off its unprecedented Ivy League three-peat, some new kids on the block will have to step up.

Sure, anyone with a shred of interest in Penn football already knows all about the quarterback situation — with two-time first-team All-Ivy selection and 2017 graduate Alek Torgersen off to the Washington Redskins, the job will be senior Will Fischer-Colbrie’s to lose.

But while the general of the offense may be the most important individual position on the field, it’s not the only place where the Red and Blue need their “next-man-up” mentality to pay off. Both the offensive line and the secondary have some drastic overhaul from one year to another, and these groups will play just as pivotal roles in determining if coach Ray Priore’s squad can make history.

One of the oldest cliches in football is that games are won and lost in the trenches — and when keeping this in mind, last year’s Quakers’ 6-1 Ivy League record was no surprise. Featuring a trio of senior offensive line starters in Nick Demes, Nick Whitton and Dan Poulos dominating foes inside, Penn rolled to a league-best 4.5 yards per carry and 5.9 yards per offensive play in 2016 en route to the coveted conference title ring.

But the flip side to Penn’s tremendous experience of a year ago was that the current edition of the Quakers only saw two starters coming back to defend their championship. As such, the offseason saw some major competition as the team’s young blood worked to fill the shoes of its departed studs.

“I think [the biggest key to the offseason was] just trying to learn from what guys did last year, trying to follow their traditions in everything they did, keeping guys up and keeping guys working all the way through up until the season,” said junior tackle Tommy Dennis, one of the two returning starters. “Now that we’re in it, we just hope that everything we did paid off, and we gotta work as one unit and keep each other up.”

When the dust settled for last week’s season opener, the Franklin Field audience saw a youth movement taking over the trenches. A pair of sophomores earned starting roles in game one, with Jeff Gibbs and Greg Begnoche asserting themselves as major players to watch.

“It’s been tough [to handle the vast increase in role], but at the same time I’ve really taken it in stride,” Gibbs said. “There were a couple of guys last year who were seniors that really helped me along — they taught me hopefully everything they knew, and I kind of looked up to those guys and tried to follow their lead, so I feel like I’m in a pretty good place right now.”

If the early results are any indication, inexperience won’t lead to ineptitude for this year’s line.

In last week’s 42-24 win over ODU, Penn collectively racked up a staggering 318 rushing yards and three touchdowns on only 33 carries, numbers which — while admittedly against a Division II opponent — bode well for the drastically overhauled Penn front.

“Last year we had a great unit, so losing those seniors, that’s tough, but with our program, the process is ‘next man up,’" said Dennis, who has switched from right tackle to left tackle this year to fill Demes’ vacant position. “So these guys have been ready for it last year, and they’re ready for it this year. The opportunity is set up, and I’m really confident that these guys have prepared and worked all offseason, so they’re ready to fill those shoes.”

While the graduation of last season’s offensive line seniors was a known commodity ahead of time, one personnel loss on the other side of the ball came as a total shock.

When defending first team All-Ivy cornerback and rising junior Mason Williams stunned the team by announcing his plans to transfer to Duke, it left the Penn secondary forced to replace two of its four starters from a year ago — safety Alex Moore graduated.

Like the offensive line group, the improvements that last year’s secondary made were pivotal in the team’s eventual title-winning season — Penn finished 40th nationally in team passing defense efficiency in 2016 after being 89th in 2015 and 110th the year prior, while Williams personally led the Ivy League with six interceptions.

So with Williams having departed to Durham, the competition was spirited — and rapid — for who Penn’s next man up would be. On opening day, sophomore Conor O’Brien got the start opposite third-year starting corner Jyron Walker, while junior Luke Bullock joined classmate Sam Philippi as the starting safeties, but no arrangements are set in stone quite yet.

“There’s still wide open competition, honestly. You’re gonna see this week that were gonna play [Eric] Markes, we’re gonna play Conor, we’re gonna play the young guy [Jared] Noble — we’ve gotta play a top passing attack, so we’ve gotta do some different things with different people,” defensive coordinator Bob Benson said. “So it’s a work in progress — I don’t know if anything has been totally established, but we’ve got good players.”

Needless to say, this year’s group will face a tall task if it wants to match the progression made in recent seasons — and just as the case is with the offensive line, how quickly the fresh faces in the defensive backfield grow up will be crucial in determining Penn’s eventual fate. 

For O’Brien — who cracked the rotation late last season and had an interception in the title-clinching 42-20 win over Cornell — the extra year of experience could pay off dividends as he appears to be the guy ready to succeed Williams in the starting 11.

“More so my comfortability on the field [is where I’ve improved most], I’m a lot more aware and up to speed with the game,” he said. “Coming into college as a freshman, everybody’s bigger and everybody’s faster, but after getting a few games under my belt last year, it’s a lot better speed-wise and size-wise.”

Unlike its offensive line counterpart, though, it’s hard to justify that the revamped secondary passed its opening test. Led by star quarterback Grant Russell, who entered the contest ranked second in Division II in passing yards, ODU went for 353 passing yards and three touchdowns on 30-for-41 passing — a pass efficiency of 169.64 — allowing the Panthers to hang around until late in the game.

But the early results haven’t discouraged the Red and Blue at all. If anything, a bit of humility will only provide extra motivation for a group already hungry to prove that last year’s departures won’t turn it into a liability.

“It was a good challenge for us. He’s a really good quarterback, and I think most people in the Ivy League would like to have that quarterback,” Benson said. “It certainly is gonna help us get ready, but we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

So as the Quakers prepare for the natural bump in competitiveness that will come against Division I foes, it’s clear that the maturation process will have to come awfully quickly for the Red and Blue’s newcomers. And with a league-high ten returning All-Ivy players patrolling the field, just how thoroughly that growing-up occurs could very well be that X-factor that keeps the team in contention for its third straight ring.

“New guys have new roles, and everybody’s gotta make plays,” O’Brien said. “The guys last year were playmakers, and so we just have new guys stepping up each week, and I think that’s all — you just gotta come ready to play each week.”

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