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Senior defensive lineman Cooper Gardner leads the team with four sacks for a total of 19 yards.

Credit: Chase Sutton

If there’s one thing that the Quakers have shown in their first two games of the season, it’s that they can get to the quarterback.

Penn football’s defense has already recorded 17 sacks this year, a total that has only been surpassed by Oklahoma State (19 sacks), which has played twice as many games as the Red and Blue. To go along with their ability to get to the quarterback, the Quakers have held opponents to just 115 total rushing yards, a solid statistic in its own right.

Much of this early success can be attributed to the work of the defensive line, a group that has shined despite losing the duo of Tayler Hendrickson, who graduated last spring, and Louis Vecchio, who was a two-time first-team All-Ivy selection and currently plays for Vanderbilt as a graduate transfer.

The team also had to deal with the departure of former defensive line coach Malik Hall, who left Penn to become the head coach at Bates College.

With this much turnover in just one offseason, the returning members of the defensive line have had an added amount of pressure to step up and perform. And they’ve certainly responded well to the pressure.

Perhaps the most important person in getting the line to where it is now has been first-year defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Hughes has brought to the program decades of experience as a college defensive coach, including 22 years at FBS programs. He has also brought with him an approach that is simple, yet effective.

“He’s really big in the fundamentals and technique, and then also just working as a unit,” senior nose tackle Cooper Gardner said. “So from day one since he’s been here, it hasn’t been all this fancy stuff. It’s literally just, ‘Do your job the best you can and everything the right way.’ And that’s paying dividends, as you can see on the field with everyone just doing the fundamentals as well as we can.”

Gardner himself has been taking Hughes’ words to heart, as he already has four sacks through the first two games. But Hughes is more impressed with the things about Gardner that can’t be seen in the box score.

“He’s a tremendous leader; he’s a hard worker; he’s a smart guy,” Hughes said of the senior. “Smart guys get better, and he gets better every single day … To me, he’ll rival anybody as a leader on this team.”

With Gardner, who has played in every game since he started at Penn, as a leader on the defensive line, other players on the unit have grown into larger roles. Last year was the first time defensive ends Benji Mowatt and Taheeb Sonekan saw game action, and now both are wreaking havoc in the backfield. Mowatt, a sophomore, has racked up 2.5 sacks while Sonekan, a junior, has two tackles for loss.

Hughes attributes the disruptiveness of the defensive line to the group mentality of the players.

“I think we have a close-knit group,” Hughes said. “I think we have guys that are working hard, are working together, are working to improve every single day, and that’s really what we kind of focus on, just making a little bit of gain every single day. If we can get a little bit better every day, that will help us improve in the long run and help us show up on Saturday.”

Hughes and his unit know that this Saturday’s game at Dartmouth will present a unique challenge, as the Big Green have a very balanced offensive attack, evidenced by the 450 yards on the ground and 451 yards through the air that they have racked up through two contests.

“This will be a huge test for us to find out how stout we can play against a team, Dartmouth, that’s very big and plays with some different formations than what we’ve seen,” Hughes said. “They play with a lot of two tight end, sometimes three tight end [formations], so this will be a big challenge for us, and we’ll have to bow up.”

The Quakers’ defensive line certainly “bowed up” over the last two weekends. A continuation of what this group has shown recently could lead to Penn’s first 3-0 start since 2003.

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