Chaos Theory, Penn State Style

Great discipline has actually been the key for fiery Nittany Lion assistant coach Sean Spencer’s defensive linemen.

There is an irony to the nickname of Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who is affectionately know as “Coach Chaos” within the program.

The D-line has played a key role in the Nittany Lions climbing to the top of the NCAA rankings in rushing defense (85.6 ypg). Yet to get there, the PSU front four has been anything but chaotic.

In a win over Indiana last week, Penn State became the first team since the middle of last season to hold explosive Hoosier Tevin Coleman to less than 100 rushing yards. Coleman entered the game as the nation's leading rusher, and the key to stopping him had nothing to do with chaotic D-line play, but rather playing with extreme discipline.

“As a back, he's one of the best I've faced in college,” defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said. “He's the type of guy who will go two yards, two yards, and then just bust an 80-yard run. So you really have to be gap sound and fundamental.”

Heading into this week's matchup with Temple, the disciplined play of the defensive line has helped limit opponents to 2.5 yards per carry. The longest run by a Lion foe this year has been 25 yards.

Spencer is hardly bashful when tooting his own horn in a joking way. While using the move from high school JV to varsity basketball as an analogy for general player improvement, he paused to tell reporters, “Of course I was a varsity player, I just want to note that.” But when it comes to the disciplined play of the line, he said the performance of his unit is just an extension of the overall job defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is doing.

“That's a function of the defense,” Spencer said. “Coach Shoop does a great job of gapping everything out, be it blitz or base coverage or front. We're just part of the puzzle. Anytime you get safeties filling like Marcus Allen is doing right now, and the outstanding play of (linebackers) Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell, obviously the front four get a lot of credit for that. But there's a lot of moving parts that make that special.”

There have been a lot of moving parts that have made the defensive line special, too. Though this is his first year at Penn State, Spencer has been in college coaching since 1995, and most of that time has been spent working with D-linemen.

He admitted to never before having this much depth and skill, and that he's comfortable rotating as many as 10 players up front.

“This is a very, very talented group,” Spencer said. “I'm very confident that at any point in time I put those guys (rerserves) in the game, that they're gonna do something.”

While depth has been one key, the emergence of one player and the re-emergence of another have also benefitted the defensive line.

Zettel was moved from end to tackle in the spring, and has used his quickness to become a play-making force. He has 10 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a pair of interceptions.

“Moving him inside, he embraced that role,” Spencer said. “It wasn't like he was averse to it. … It was, 'I'm gonna master my technique at the position.' I think he's embraced that well. He's gonna continue to get better.”

Anthony Zettel

End Deion Barnes was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012 but saw his stats slip last season. He has been better than ever this fall, with a team-high six sacks, 37 tackles and a forced fumble.

“He's not thinking as much,” Spencer said. “When you have a kid that is very analytical about the game, sometimes that can hurt him, because there's some points in the game where instincts have to take over (for) the thought process. … I don't want him thinking. I want him to analyze the situation. However, I want him to react, based on what the offense is doing to him. And when he makes a mistake, I bring him to the side (to talk), but I don't take him out.”

Spencer said he knew early-on that Barnes was gong to be a “high-thinker.” According to his charges, the coach has a knack for sizing up players quickly, and even hitting them with nicknames.

Deion Barnes

Take redshirting freshman defensive tackle Antoine White.

“We call him the salt shaker, because every time he pass-rushes, his entire body goes into convulsions like a salt shaker,” Spencer said. “So that's his nickname, he loves it man.

“Salt,” Spencer repeated, pausing to relish the word. “That's my favorite nickname.”

Fifth-year senior defensive end Brad Bars began to laugh as he was asked about Spencer's sometimes-lighthearted ways.

“He's very energetic, but he's just like one of us,” Bars said. “He has a great time out there. He's so passionate for the game. He's serious when he needs to be serious, but when he needs to lighten up the mood, he definitely can make fun of some of us. It's funny. He's a great coach to play for.”

Like the rest of the players, Bars calls Spencer “Coach Chaos.” The name originated when he was handling the D-line at Vanderbilt under current PSU head coach James Franklin. Dwight Galt, the strength coach who also followed Franklin from Vandy to PSU, came up with the name.

It stemmed primarily from Spencer's outgoing personality and deep, booming voice.

“If you've gotten a chance to meet me, I'm kind of hyper, running around all the time,” Spencer recalled earlier this season. “Coach Galt finally said one day, 'Guys, follow Coach Chaos.' ”

But even when it comes to interacting with the young athletes following him, Spencer's philosophy is anything but chaotic.

“You've gotta have great balance with them,” he said. “If you come in and you yell and you scream the whole time, at some point they're gonna mute you out.

“Now, there's a standard,” he added. “We're gonna be on time for meetings. We're gonna be on time for practice. We're gonna do things right and we're gonna go hard. If you create a standard, when the standard's broken, there is a result of the standard being broken.

“I know that sounds like a lot of philosophy and all that.”

So what does it all mean in non-philosophical terms?

“They know when I'm (ticked) off,” Spencer said. “There's not going to be any gray area whether I dislike something.”

Nor is there any gray area when he likes something, which has so often been the case this year. And that's allowed the players to see yet another side of Spencer that doesn't quite mesh with the “Coach Chaos” moniker.

“Just being myself and being lighthearted in the room with those guys and letting them understand how much I care about them and how much I want them to succeed,” he said.


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