Caught up in all the storylines surrounding Penn football’s quarterback controversy and Justin Watson breaking every record in sight was one cold, hard fact about the 2017 season: The Quakers’ defense was not where it needed to be for an Ivy League three-peat.
While there were certainly some major highs on defense — Nick Miller’s historic season, holding usual juggernaut Harvard to six points, the epic goal-line stand against Cornell — the unit’s lows may have cost the team a shot at its third straight title. Penn allowed 25.7 points per game after giving up only 21.3 a year prior, and its average of 5.71 yards allowed per play ranked worst in the Ivy League.
And now, after the offense graduated several stars including Watson, Tre Solomon, and first-team All-Ivy center Nathan Kirchmier, one thing is clear: If Penn football is to return to Ivy League supremacy, its defense will have to raise its game.
Fortunately for Penn, based on the Quakers’ array of returning talent, it very well could do so.
Only three defensive starters from a year ago departed: defensive ends Louis Vecchio and Tayler Hendrickson, and linebacker Colton Moskal. Twelve of the team’s top 15 tacklers return, including a trio of rising seniors who earned All-Ivy honors in 2017.
With such a veteran core coming back, confidence is sky-high that these returners can push the team to contender status once again.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger role for the offense or defense to fill, but we embrace adversity as a defense,” senior captain and safety Sam Philippi said. “Last season, we had an opportunity to make those clutch plays, and we didn’t do it. We lost three [Ivy] games by a combined 11 points. Those are the details that we really want to stress this season, and we’re really ready to make those changes this year.”
If the defense is to turn things around, everything will likely start with the team’s secondary. After defensive coordinator Bob Benson drastically improved the team’s pass defense in each of his first two seasons, Penn took a major step back in the area in 2017.
After ranking 40th in the country in 2016 with an impressive defensive pass efficiency of 121.26, Penn slid down to 108th in the metric at 145.93 last season. And after two straight seasons ranking in the top two in the league in interceptions, Penn only secured five interceptions in 2017, better than only six other teams in the entire FCS.
But if there’s any positional unit that's best-equipped for a major turnaround, it’s the same one that needs it the most.
Unlike last season, when the team was coming off of the graduation of safety Alex Moore and the transfer of first-team All-Ivy pick Mason Williams, the secondary is rich with returning talent. Led by four-year starter Philippi at safety, every contributor from last year’s group is back, including corners Jyron Walker, Jared Noble, and Conor O’Brien, safeties Jacob Martin and Luke Bullock, and more.
With so many experienced names coming back, there’s no group on the roster that has as much familiarity with both one another and Penn’s upcoming opponents. And the Quakers plan to use that to their advantage.
“We have a chemistry that we know when we need to make calls, and we know when we need to talk to each other. We’re always with each other watching film; we have lunch meetings everyday,” Philippi said. “I think that camaraderie and that chemistry together is huge to be able to know what someone else is thinking when you don’t even have to talk to them.”
In contrast, the front seven is losing three starters, most notably Vanderbilt graduate transfer Vecchio. But that group also has one of the finest defensive players Penn football has seen in quite some time.
Linebacker Nick Miller was all over the field in both the pass and run game in 2017. The then-junior’s total of 104 tackles was the highest by any Quaker in 20 years, and his list of accolades includes being a finalist for the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year award and being the only Ivy League defensive player named as a 2018 STATS FCS Preseason All-American.
Miller is far from the only important returner in the linebacker corps. Brian O’Neill, Connor Jangro, and converted running back Jay Cammon Jr. all started at times in 2017. But with the unofficial status as the league’s best returning defensive player, Miller and his blue-collar approach will need to thrive for Penn to get back to the pinnacle of the league.
“He’s one of the hardest workers you’ll ever find,” senior defensive tackle Cooper Gardner said of his classmate. “He’s one of those guys — he’s not all about talking about it, he’s all about being about it. He just puts his nose down every day, works his butt off, and gets the job done.”
If returning talent wasn’t enough to help the Quakers’ defense, though, they undoubtedly have the motivation to match.
Though last season’s fourth-place finish might sound like a far cry from a league championship, the reality was that all three Ivy losses came by one possession, and Penn’s losses to Dartmouth and Columbia came on walk-off touchdowns by the opponent.
And after Penn allowed more than 400 yards in both of those games to open the Ivy season 0-2, its defense has one simple creed: never again.
“I don’t think I’ve gone a day without thinking of at least one of those games. The Dartmouth game, national television, pretty much no worse way to lose than that. I’ve got a screenshot of Columbia celebrating after they won on my phone as my screensaver, cause that game really pretty much upsets my stomach every time I think about it,” Philippi said.
“So when kickoff comes for those games, they’re gonna remember what happened last year.”