James Franklin and Brent Pry have known each other for decades. More than that, the Penn State coach has known the parents of his defensive coordinator for just as long.
That didn’t stop there from being a mix-up on Saturday when comedian Keegan-Michael Key — a Penn State grad — went on ESPN’s “College GameDay” and broke out his Franklin impression to poke fun at the coach’s definitely-not-icing-the-kicker timeout against Georgia State.
“I’ll tell you a funny story. Not to go backwards, but Brent told me that his mom thought that Keegan was me,” Franklin said. “You know, and I’ve known her for 35 years.”
In fairness to Kathy Pry, it is a pretty good impression.
Franklin and Pry certainly needed a little levity after their blood pressures eventually normalized following the Nittany Lions’ 21-19 escape from Iowa.
Before they headed home to Happy Valley, however, Franklin wanted to make sure Pry’s unit wasn’t overshadowed by Saquon Barkley’s historic performance and Juwan Johnson’s last-second touchdown catch.
“I thought our defense played unbelievably well and probably hasn’t got enough credit this year for as well as they’re playing,” Franklin said after the game.
A fair point considering the Lions enter Saturday’s game against Indiana ranked No. 2 in the nation in points allowed per game (8.3) and 17th in yards allowed per game (273.5).
Granted, the Lions haven’t been facing high-powered offenses — the Hoosiers will likely provide the toughest test in that regard — but in the road opener, the defense shut down the Hawkeyes for much of the game.
”I think we have a very close unit,” Pry said Monday on the Big Ten Network. “We don’t necessarily have an all-star. We don’t have a Saquon Barkley on our side of the ball. But we have some very good players, some guys who are having a nice start to their senior seasons.
“But we play together. That’s been our M.O. since last year. We suffered through some injuries, but we came out on top last season because of closeness, unity and a next-man-up mentality. It’s a real strong brotherhood.”
And while the injury situation isn’t as exasperating as it was last September, when the Lions were missing all three starting linebacker, it has still hit the team early.
Pry, now in his second season as coordinator, has already lost two experienced starters to serious knee injuries. Cornerback John Reid went down in the spring and defensive Torrence Brown was ruled out for the season at the end of last week.
“I think when Torrence went down, that hurt everybody, especially his fellow wild dogs,” Pry said, referencing the nickname for the defensive linemen coined by position coach Sean Spencer. “(Fellow starting end Shareef Miller) doesn’t surprise me. The way the front played in that game doesn’t surprise me. They had Torrence in mind snap after snap on Saturday.”
Miller has stepped up in his first season as a starter. The redshirt sophomore leads the team with six tackles for loss, including an all-important safety against Iowa where he sniffed out a pitch play and was the first one to reach elusive tailback Akrum Wadley in the end zone.
Franklin credits the effort and emotion the defense is showing to Pry and his fellow coaches.
“I sit in the defensive meetings when he addresses the defense, and (he has) just tremendous leadership and passion for what we do and how we do it,” Franklin said. “He’s a guy that really understands the X’s and O’s and the schemes and how important they are. But also the motivation and the development that also is such an important part of your jobs.”
When Bob Shoop left for Tennessee in January 2016, Franklin didn’t need to think twice about promoting Pry, who was then solely the linebackers coach, to replace him.
Their relationship goes back to when Franklin was the quarterback at East Stroudsburg and Pry’s father, Jim, was the offensive coordinator. Brent’s first coaching job came at East Stroudsburg when Franklin was still playing.
They reunited when Franklin hired him for his staff at Vanderbilt in 2011, a coaching partnership now in its seventh year.
“One of the things I love about working for him is that it’s more than X’s and O’s,” Pry said. “It’s about player development on and off the field field. It’s about keeping it fun, keeping it competitive and shared hardships. There are so many things he recognizes and identifies that are important to team success.”
“I’m a huge Brent Pry fan,” Franklin said. “And I’m fiercely loyal to Brent, and Brent has been fiercely loyal to me. To me, that’s really important.”