Sean Spencer's secret weapon: chaos theory
Photo courtesy: John Patishnock
Quarterbacks looking to find an edge against Penn State’s defense have a difficult road ahead of them this season thanks to one major oversight: they probably haven’t spent enough time contemplating chaos theory.
And really, who can blame them?
The idea that small, seemingly insignificant alterations can give rise to great in-game consequences probably doesn’t factor into many offensive game plans against the Nittany Lions.
But, chaos theory definitely impacts Penn State's gameplay—more than fans might previously have imagined.
Sean Spencer makes sure of that.
As he begins his fifth year at Penn State, Spencer added the title of associate head coach in the offseason in addition to his responsibilities of run game coordinator and defensive line coach. Spencer has overseen the defensive line at seven prior stops in his coaching career, and it’s this area where the mathematical theory comes into play.
So exactly how does chaos theory translate to the field, and what does it mean for both the Nittany Lions and their opponents?
“We believe that anytime the quarterback drops back, that we’ve got a shot to make the sack—you’ve got to believe in that,” Spencer said in early June, speaking from his office in the Lasch Building. “They also believe in the mentality that everybody in the room can contribute.”
When Spencer says “everybody,” he’s not kidding. Last year, 22 Nittany Lions recorded at least a half sack—across all positions—resulting in 42 sacks total, for a loss of 247 yards. It was the third consecutive year that the defense recorded 40-plus sacks, the first time Penn State’s had such a three-year string since 2005–07.
Add in the “Wild Dogs” mentality that Spencer has championed during his time with the program and his relentless big-time energy, and you can look no further when trying to find the source for the defensive line’s success.
“You could say a lot of it is technique, but a lot of it is mentality, too, getting after the quarterback and going as hard as you can every play,” Ryan Buchholz said of the team’s ability to stockpile sacks. “Usually after every practice, like he did today, he was firing us up.”
The junior defensive end figured to play a prominent role this season, though he recently retired due to health reasons. Buchholz has played for Spencer all his career, appearing in 10 games last season, including six starts. Buchholz demanded attention from offensive lines last season. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 258 pounds, the Malvern, Pa., native recorded two sacks and three quarterback hits in 2017. He also forced and recovered a fumble last season and made a total of 18 tackles.
Buchholz gave his assessment after a spring practice in the middle of April. Overall, the squad struggled through a practice that James Franklin described as sloppy. After practice, the team ran—not something that Franklin usually advocates for—and Spencer was seen dashing across Holuba Hall, encouraging his guys during the post-practice workout.
Buchholz said the defensive line had a good practice, recording a bunch of sacks, and Spencer’s upbeat vibe is typical for practices, games, and well, pretty much anytime he’s on the field.
“No one rises to low expectations,” Spencer stated, saying he learned that lesson from Mark Whipple, head coach at Massachusetts. “You have to expect greatness from the kids every time they walk on the field. If you don't demand that as a coach, if you just sit there, if you allow things to happen that are not congruent with what you are trying to teach, then you’re failing them. That’s just that mentality that we’ve built around here.”
Spencer continued: “I always tell them you have to exude more energy than I, as a coach. You can’t walk on the field. I’m not going to walk out there and be like, ‘We’ve got to practice,’ and twirl my whistle. No, I’m tapping my foot, I’m jumping around; I’m excited going out there and getting better, and that’s the way they’ve got to approach practice.”
Spencer smiled when told about Buchholz’ reason for the three consecutive seasons of 40-plus sacks—his own mentality and energy. “I appreciate Ryan saying that, but it’s some talent, too, you know what I’m saying,” the defensive line coach said, laughing just a bit.
Spencer’s point is well taken. And his willingness to deflect credit is a good indication of his leadership skills, which have elevated him to associate head coach and given way to a fast-rising lineage of defensive stalwarts he’s coached over the last four seasons.
This year’s group figures to give opposing teams just as many problems as recent squads.
Along with Buchholz, Shareef Miller should join him at the other defensive end position; Miller appeared in all 13 games last season, starting every contest but one. Shake Toney and Shane Simmons are also extremely capable athletes, and if Torrence Brown can return near full-strength after suffering a season-ending injury early last year, the line will be solid.
Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor should compete for starting jobs at defensive tackle, and several other players are ready for playing time—Fred Hansard and Antonio Shelton among them. Hansard was redshirted last year, and his size gives him the ability to disrupt any offense. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 318 pounds. Buchholz said in spring practice that both Hansard and Shelton, a redshirt sophomore who appeared in six games last season, have impressed him. Shelton’s power and speed, specifically, stood out.
“Those guys definitely have been stepping up, and I think they’ll see the field this year,” Buchholz said.
Having a strong core of both starters and backups is key for Spencer, who said that both Hansard and Shelton played their best football in the spring. Previously on the scout team, Spencer couldn't always see what they were doing, outside of watching tape. This year, however, Hansard and Shelton are working directly with Spencer and Phil Galiano, assistant defensive line coach.
The players are learning more and applying different strategies in practice that Spencer and the defense plan to implement in the games, mainly pressure the quarterback, splinter the offensive line and cause disruption.
In other words: create chaos.
“In order for us to have the success that we’ve had over the years—with the 40-plus sacks or more—you have to develop tremendous depth,” Spencer said. “You've got to be confident that the guy that you’re putting in is just as good as the guy that you started with. So those two guys (Hansard and Shelton) having a really good spring, I think, is going to be tremendous in our development as a unit.”