Penn State has been fortunate to have some fantastic defenders over the years (especially at linebacker), but in recent times, the offensive side of the ball has received more accolades, thanks to talents like Chris Godwin, Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, Mike Gesicki and the Scranton Slinger himself, Matt McGloin. However, the old adage “Defense wins championships” still rings true—so who is the defensive version of Barkley, McSorley, or Godwin that makes the clutch play to seal the win? They may not lead the team in turnovers forced or tackles, but when the team needs them to make a play, who are the individuals that rise up and deliver? While players like Marcus Allen certainly deserve consideration, when looking back at the last five years, there is one player who stands above the others: Grant Haley.
Let’s start with his freshman year in 2014, and his interception for a touchdown against Temple:
The pick six was the first defensive touchdown for a freshman since Paul Posluszny (wearing No. 39) in 2003 against Indiana. For the season, Haley averaged 20 yards a return as the primary kick returner, and was one of only three true freshmen to start for the sanction-depleted Nittany Lions.
In 2015, Haley recorded interceptions against Rutgers and Maryland, and was fourth on the team with seven tackles against Georgia in the Taxslayer Bowl. His sophomore year may have lacked the huge highlights, but he still earned honorable mention All-Big Ten.
The 2016 season is probably the best case (so far) for Haley as the most clutch defender in the last five seasons.
First, the Block Six:
It’s a play that will be remembered for decades, but it also helped catapult the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten Championship, where this happened...
A certain diminutive friend of mine would like me to remind you that there is a shared element with both of these plays-the aforementioned Marcus Allen. Allen is the one who actually blocked the field goal, and the safety combined on the stop of Clement on fourth down. However, Haley gets slightly more credit for both plays because he returned the kick for the score, and without Haley hanging onto Clement’s legs, the running back probably gets by Allen and earns the first down.
Early in 2017, the senior has continued to tally up big plays. Just this past Saturday, Haley had two key plays in the first half, providing a spark to an otherwise somewhat lackluster effort. First, this interception and 42-yard return.
Interestingly, the first thing Haley brought up with the play after the game was the fact that he slipped coming out of his break, but was able to recover and track the ball. He unfortunately wasn’t able to deliver on his bet with Saquon Barkley about scoring when forcing a turnover, but the play still resulted in a touchdown on the next play.
Later in the half, Haley got his first career sack, with Gesicki scored again on the ensuing drive, on this third and long.
Haley said after the game that he was especially fired up because he was injured in last year’s contest against Pitt. He bent over backwards to give credit to the coaching staff for putting himself and his teammates in position to make plays, but the Georgia native’s knack for making the highlight reel can’t be tossed aside. His play on Saturday is just another tally on the side of the senior defensive back being the most clutch defender in the last five years.