STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — During his time as an assistant coach at the University of Buffalo, Jeff Monken spent the 1992 season working with a student-coach named Brent Pry.
Eighteen years later, Monken became a college head coach for the first time at Georgia Southern, and he knew Pry would be a great choice to lead his defense.
“We kept in touch, and I kept up with him,” Monken, who is now the head coach at Army, told Land of 10. “He went to work at several places and really did a great job. I just knew he was a terrific football coach. He’s a son of a football coach and so am I.
“There’s are a lot of good coaches that weren’t coach’s kids, but coach’s kids just sort of get it. They grow up around the game. I think he and I were very similar in terms of philosophy, and he cares about kids and people. He was just the right kind of guy. I thought he was the perfect fit.”
Pry has been the perfect fit for Penn State’s defense in 2016, his first season in charge after sharing duties with Bob Shoop for the previous two seasons. Although Pry had been Franklin’s co-defensive coordinator for five years at Vanderbilt and Penn State, Shoop received the majority of the credit. He became known as one of the top defensive minds in the country.
When Tennessee lured Shoop away this offseason, it was considered a coup for the Volunteers and a huge loss for the Nittany Lions. Franklin turned to Pry, and despite several key injuries earlier in the season, the defense has continued to be a strength.
Traditional statistics don’t provide an accurate rendering of how well Penn State’s defense has played. The Nittany Lions are 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and rushing defense, and sixth against the pass.
Bill Connelly’s S&P+ analytical system, which adjusts for variables such as strength of opponent, pace of play, the score of the game and other factors that skew traditional stats, tells a very different tale. Penn State is 14th in the nation in his S&P+ defensive rating, and ranks in the top 25 against the run, against the pass, on standard downs and on passing downs, which are second-and-8 or more and third- or fourth-and-5 or more.
Penn State finished fourth in S&P+ defensive rating in 2014 and 14th in 2015. The Nittany Lions lost three defensive linemen to the NFL from last season and Shoop to the SEC, but remain among the nation’s best defenses.
Tennessee’s defense, which began the season with multiple players projected to future first-round picks in the NFL but has also dealt with key injuries, is 30th in S&P+ defensive rating.
“I’m happy for Brent,” Franklin said. “He’s been in a co-(defensive coordinator) role for a number of years, but I was always very confident when he stepped into this role, he would do a really good job. Obviously, until he does it, you never really know. But I was very confident. There was no hesitation when that decision came. I’m happy for him. He’s doing a good job. I know he’s having a lot of fun and has been good for our kids.”
Pry’s task wasn’t going to be easy this season. Penn State had three defensive linemen selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, which is a nice thing to talk to recruits about but less fun to deal with on the field the following season.
Then it got even tougher when all three of his starting linebackers were hurt by the end of Week 3. The Michigan game in Week 4 became a mess when third-string middle linebacker Brandon Smith was ejected on a dubious targeting call and fourth-stringer Jan Johnson sustained a season-ending knee injury.
“Obviously there’s been a lot of adversity,” Pry said. “The plan was to have some veteran (linebackers) and a veteran back end to help the young front along. But we were thrown a curveball early with the injuries. Some guys had to grow up fast. We put a little more onus on the front. Week by week, I think they’ve improved.”
Pitt and Michigan tore apart Penn State’s front. Both gouged the Nittany Lions for more than 300 rushing yards and more than six yards per attempt. The next three games were Minnesota, Maryland and Ohio State, three of the top four rushing teams in the conference.
The Golden Gophers rushed for 228 yards, but needed nearly 50 carries to do so. Maryland and Ohio State both came to Beaver Stadium averaging 300-plus rushing yards per game. The Terps finished with 170, and the Buckeyes had a season-low 168 on 40 attempts. One was a 74-yard touchdown run by Curtis Samuel. The vaunted Buckeyes’ rushing attack managed just 94 yards in the other 39 attempts.
That performance coincided with the return of two of the three injured starters at linebacker, Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell. That allowed Pry and his staff a little more freedom to make changes before the snap.
Penn State is also getting better at pressuring the quarterback. The Nittany Lions had 10 sacks combined in the Maryland and Ohio State games and confused Purdue quarterback David Blough on a key interception early in the third quarter to ignite a rout of the Boilermakers.
“I think the adversity we faced, and the way the kids handled it, has become a positive,” Pry said. “That thing had a chance to flip sideways with a couple of tough losses where you didn’t play well and you had some new guys playing. The guys really set their jaw and sort of persevered.
“I’ve been too many times at too many places where adversity’s got you, and this has gone the other direction. I think the staff has done a great job, from Coach Franklin down, of just hammering away.”
Both Franklin and Monken were quick to mention Pry’s father and his designation as a son of a football coach. Monken’s father is also a football coach, so there was a natural connection.
Pry’s father was Franklin’s offensive coordinator at East Stroudsburg University for two years, and the younger Pry joined the staff during Franklin’s senior season.
“His defenses will be prepared,” Monken said. “They will be fundamentally sound. They will be tough. They will give great effort. I mean, he’s going to get them coached up. He does a great job.”
Pry spent one season working with Monken at Georgia Southern before Franklin brought him to Vanderbilt and then to Penn State. It was a very successful season with the Eagles, who reached the FCS semifinals. They beat five teams that were ranked in the top 11 at the time. None of those teams scored more than 21 points on Pry’s defense, and neither did Monken’s former employer, Navy. In his second game as Georgia Southern’s coach, Monken went to Annapolis to face his former team and lost just 13-7 to a Midshipmen team that won nine games.
“Brent did a great job; our kids loved him,” Monken said. “He’s a great leader. Just tremendous energy and one of those guys that kids are really, I guess they really gravitate towards him as a coach and felt genuinely that he was making a difference for them. He did a great job, and we were sorry to lose him.
“His personality was just perfect for Georgia Southern and those kids. I knew he was, but it didn’t take everyone else very long to figure out he was the right guy for the job too.”
He’s only had eight games in charge at Penn State. But there’s a lot of evidence that he’s the right guy in Happy Valley as well.