Prying Into PSU Assistant’s Gridiron Roots

Bent Pry, who now leads the Nittany Lion linebackers, was destined to be a football coach.

There was never much doubt that Brent Pry would wind up a football coach.

“It's just what I knew,” Penn State's assistant head coach, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach was saying Tuesday in Lancaster, before the second leg of the school's Coaches Caravan.

His dad, Jim, began his own coaching odyssey shortly after Brent was born some 44 years ago, one that continued through last season, when the elder Pry served as the offensive coordinator at Bethune-Cookman.

When Brent thinks about his childhood, he thinks about bus rides to far-off high school games. The Altoona native thinks about romping around fields before kickoff, and his mom, Kathy, keeping tabs not only on Jim's games but those Brent and his two younger brothers, Nathan and Jon, eventually played.

The sport became part of his DNA, his career a meandering path resembling one of those genetic spirals. As with every coach, it has intersected those of others in the profession over the years, and each time has been forever affected, forever changed.

Brent, who started out as a student assistant at Buffalo after his playing days were brought to an end by injury, earned his first full-time gig as the outside linebackers coach at East Stroudsburg, in 1993. His dad was the offensive coordinator.

The quarterback was James Franklin.

“Ultra-competitive” is the word the younger Pry uses to describe Franklin in those days. Also “full-throttle.”

He is now Pry's boss, and he hasn't changed. He also appears to be a carrier. When Pry approached a half-dozen reporters Tuesday, he let out a good-natured “LET'S GO!” Then, in short order, he talked up a Nittany Lion who is just leaving (Mike Hull), one who is just arriving (Jarvis Miller) and those who are sticking around.

“I think we have the opportunity and the potential to be better than we were last season,” he said of the defense.

Fellow defensive coordinator Bob Shoop had expressed a similar view after the Blue-White Game, saying that the Lions again “have a chance to be pretty good” on that side of the ball. That's saying something, considering that in 2014 they were second among the nation's 125 major-college teams in yardage allowed (278.7 per game) and pass efficiency (101.14 rating), third against the rush (100.5), seventh in points allowed (18.6) and ninth in passing yardage allowed (178.2).

Yet Pry and Shoop appear to believe that, despite losing Hull, the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year last fall, as well as safety Adrian Amos (a fifth-round pick of the Chicago Bears), and ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes.

Olaniyan, Barnes and Hull all went undrafted, but the ends landed free-agent deals with the Seahawks and Jets, respectively, while Hull latched on with the Dolphins. Pry said Hull, the conference's leading tackler last fall, might not have been able to put his best foot forward in predraft workouts because of minor postseason knee surgery, and echoed Franklin in saying that Hull is destined for good things.

“I think this is something that Mike's dealt with his whole life,” Pry said. “He's been second-guessed. I have no doubt that he'll have tremendous motivation and be very impressive.”

Nyeem Wartman is the most likely candidate to replace Hull at middle linebacker, though Ben Kline and Gary Wooten are possibilities as well. And overall, Pry said, the defense should benefit from having a larger talent pool, a result of the Sandusky-induced NCAA sanctions being eased.

Among the newcomers to the two-deep will be redshirt freshman linebacker Koa Farmer, who because of his quickness and athleticism has “positioned himself to have a chance to help us” at an outside spot, Pry said. And while Pry reserved judgment on Miller until he gets a chance to work with the incoming recruit more closely, he did say this: “In my mind, that guy's going to be an all-conference safety right now.”

Again, Pry said, “There is more depth. There's greater competition. There's some guys that will emerge, I believe, that will be impact players, all-conference-caliber players. We may not man-for-man match a guy we lost, but as a unit at that spot, I think we can be better at each spot.”

Nor does it hurt that the unit can build on all that was accomplished last season.

“Obviously there's confidence in the plan, in the coaches, in the kids themselves,” he said. “They feel good about the techniques we're asking them to go out there and do. They feel excited about their opportunity for success in the package. They've bought in, and I think that's a big part of it.”

If such rampant optimism sounds familiar, we should again remind ourselves about the entwined coaching DNAs of Pry, his father and Franklin.

Franklin said Tuesday that Jim Pry was “kind of a mentor professionally for me … especially early on in my career,” and that he adopted some of the offensive principles taught by the elder Pry and head coach Denny Douds at East Stroud.

Brent Pry said Franklin has long been a “family friend” to the Prys. So even as the younger Pry wended through five coaching stops and Franklin eight after initially crossing paths, it seemed inevitable that they would reunite at some point.

It would come when Franklin earned his first head-coaching job, at Vanderbilt in 2011 -- though Brent laughingly remembers that there was some uncertainty about whether he would earn a position.

“I wasn't sure in the pecking order, if I was going to have to wait for my dad to get out of line before I had a shot,” he said. “In fact, when the whole Vanderbilt thing was going on, there were conversations with my father and there were conversations with me.”

Jim, an Illinois assistant from 2006-10, took a job at Dartmouth in '11 before moving on to Bethune-Cookman the following season. Brent wound up spending three years with Franklin at Vandy, then followed him to Penn State in January 2014, despite an offer to become the head coach at Georgia Southern.

Jim saw his time at Bethune-Cookman end after last season, when head coach Bruce Jenkins headed off to Alabama State. Jenkins was later accused of mistreating players and breaking NCAA rules governing practice time.

Brent continues on, again aligned with Franklin. And very much sounding the part.

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