On Saturday the game wasn’t in doubt for very long and as a result fans got a long look at some of the players that will be featured in the coming years. Freshman linebacker Brandon Smith got a lot of attention for a hard tackle that he made at the end of the game. After a review for targeting, the officials decided that it was a clean hit. It was a great moment for Smith, but that’s not the play that stuck out the most. So we’re probably not going to show the big hit this week. That play went for a gain of nine yards.
Instead, it was a tackle for a loss by Smith, midway through the third quarter, that gets the spotlight this week. On the play we saw some great things from the young linebacker, and also some great work by many other young players that figure to make an impact not only in the coming years, but possibly later this season.
Setting The Stage
Just before the snap, middle linebacker Ellis Brooks (13) shouted to PJ Mustipher (97) and the big tackle widened out slightly to make room for Brandon Smith (12). At the snap of the ball the Lions had Daniel Joseph (49) in a three-point stance at left defensive end, Adisa Isaac (20) standing up at right defensive end, with Mustipher lined up alongside Fred Hansard (53) at defensive tackle.
It was a basic shift before the snap but it was nice to see the young Penn State defenders all moving together, coordinated not to give away the pass rush until there were fewer than ten seconds on the play clock.
Penn State was in a five defensive back set with just two linebackers. While the names of the players will change, this is a formation we will see a lot of this year. True freshman Keaton Ellis was lined up in the slot as the nickel back, where he knocked down a pass earlier in the game in textbook fashion. Ellis is being fast-tracked for the extra defensive back position, and while there are some talented players at that spot ahead of him on the depth chart, it won’t be long before the State College product is a factor.
Joey Porter Jr. (9), another true freshman, was lined up at right corner at the top of the screen and DJ Brown (24) was at left corner.
At safety Jaquan Brisker (7) was in center field, twelve yards off the line of scrimmage while Jonathan Sutherland (26) lined up at linebacker depth across from the tight end. It was a basic single-high safety with man coverage everywhere else, Cover 1. There were no stunts on the line, so everyone had an assigned gap straight ahead.
Smith ran straight through the defense in what appears to be effortless fashion, but with a closer look, he used more than one tool to get to the quarterback.
Assignment-wise, Smith has to account only for the quarterback, while Ellis Brooks is nearby watching the running back. Smith was so fast in getting past the center that he took the running back by surprise, who at the last moment tried to throw out a chicken wing to slow him down, to no avail.
What I like most about Smith on the play was his decisiveness and lack of hesitation. While this is just one play, it shows that he arrived in Happy Valley with true linebacker instincts, an understanding of how to play the position.
No knock on Micah Parsons, who was learning a new position last year, but Smith appears much more game ready at this point. And similarly talented. The difference is that the team needed Parsons to play immediately as the fourth linebacker. Smith should be able to grow into a role as the season progresses with no urgency. Jesse Luketa showed that he is able to step into the starting lineup if needed and Ellis Brooks is ready to play as well.
Watch Smith as he moves just a few inches to the left, without abandoning his gap, while sprinting three yards deep into the backfield. Technically the play went for a loss of two, but it looks like Idaho got a favorable spot.
Here’s one last look, slowed down enough so that you can see the subtle but very effective move that Smith used to get by the center clean. Just a slight lean left and some good work with the hands. It looks like a whiff by the center but it was not, they made contact and Smith won the battle, quickly.
The young linebacker used his instincts to get off the snap of the ball quickly, his hands to get past the center, and foot speed to get clear of the running back before he knew what hit him. It was a nice, hard tackle as well, with one hand grabbing on the ball, forcing the quarterback to use two hands to hold onto it.
Not to rub salt in Idaho’s wound, but if you watch the two guys that Smith beat on the play, No. 22 in the backfield and No. 66 at center, they finished the play basically blocking themselves. Truth be told, they may have just needed a hug after that one.
To Idaho’s credit, they did seem to have their responsibilities in order. The center tried to block Smith, and the back was focused slightly downfield on Brooks, not expecting a near jailbreak rush up the middle, and he also tried to get a piece of his body on Smith. This was just a great physical move, not a miscommunication on Idaho’s part or a broken play. So that’s why we’re not going to make a gif of the two players block-hugging. They tried their best.
Brandon Smith is 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and he moves with speed and instincts that are hard to teach. It’s scary to think that he just turned 18 in April. He has a lot of growing to do, mentally, and possibly even physically.
In a week with many highlight reel worthy plays, a simple tackle for a loss, one of eleven tackles for loss for the Lions on the day, is the only play that we will discuss.
Oh, okay. Who are we kidding? You want to watch the big hit. I want to watch the big hit. Let’s look at the big hit. Here’s the big hit.
It’s an impressive hit, and nice celebration afterward, but it was also a great job carrying out his assignment. Smith was lined up in pass coverage opposite the tight end in the slot, then took his read steps, staying in position to defend a pass were it thrown to the tight end. Once the ball was thrown, Smith left his responsibility and ran to the ball.
Watching it in slow-motion is nice but to truly appreciate the violence of the play, you have to hear the audio. Watch the sideline reactions by the Penn State players, most notably big number 69 C.J. Thorpe.