Grant Haley was just happy to not be stuck on the sideline. To not have an athletic trainer hovering over him. To not be forced to watch his team lose an early game to an in-state opponent.
The Penn State cornerback had been hampered by September injuries in each of the last two seasons. He missed the 2015 opener entirely against Temple and exited in the first quarter of last season’s Week 2 showdown with Pitt. The Nittany Lions lost both games, with a shorthanded defense struggling each time.
Now healthy to open his senior season, Haley has already been a huge presence for the Lions. In the rematch against Pitt on Saturday, he picked off Panthers quarterback Max Browne on the opening drive, returning it 42 yards to the Pitt 8-yard line.
“I did (think I was going to score),” Haley said. “My eyes got a little big.”
The offense took care of that on the next play, and the quick touchdown put the Lions in control for the rest of the afternoon.
More than just the one big play, Haley was solid throughout the afternoon. He graded out as the Big Ten’s top-rated defender at any position last weekend according to Pro Football Focus.
“Yeah I was fired up,” Haley said of his performance. “Last year I got hurt on the first series (against Pitt), so I’d been anticipating and ready for this game ever since we lost the last one.”
As it is, the Lions are ranked No. 5 in the polls heading into Saturday’s tune-up against Georgia State at Beaver Stadium. The Panthers hail from Atlanta, same as Haley — one of four Penn State players from the Peach State, including punter Blake Gillikin, kicker Alex Barbir and true freshman defensive back D.J. Brown.
At 5-foot-9, Haley has held his own against much bigger receivers over his career. He credits his work with former teammate Chris Godwin, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with helping him in that regard.
Beyond Godwin, Haley said his toughest matchup was former Ohio State star Michael Thomas, who is now the top target for Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints.
Haley’s experience has also given him some versatility in the Lions’ scheme. When Penn State goes to a nickel package, Haley shifts inside to play the slot, allowing Amani Oruwariye to check in and play on the outside.
Swapping between both spots doesn’t come easily.
“It’s challenging in the sense of your positional work,” Haley said. “Playing outside, you have a limited amount of space (to cover) with the sideline there. But playing in the nickel, it’s all in the open field.
“It’s a challenge, but I’m not going to back away from a challenge. I feel comfortable in that position.”
It also affords him some new opportunities he wouldn’t otherwise have. Against Pitt, defensive coordinator Brent Pry called Haley’s number on a blitz in the first quarter that ended up with Haley hammering the 6-foot-5 Browne for his first career sack.
That came on a third-and-9 play to end the Panthers drive with a 9-yard loss. The play helped give Penn State a bit better field position on the following drive, which they capped off with another touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
“He’s just such a dependable guy,” Lions coach James Franklin said of Haley. “He’s going to be in the right place at the right time. He’s very disciplined. He’s made big play after big play his entire career on special teams and on defense.”
Naturally, Haley’s name most frequently gets associated with those big plays — arguably the two biggest from last season’s march to a Big Ten title.
Haley famously returned Marcus Allen’s blocked field goal for the winning touchdown against Ohio State and teamed up with Allen again to bring down Wisconsin’s Corey Clement on fourth down, sealing the victory in the Big Ten championship game.
They’re the types of plays that get Haley recognized around campus and town. But with a year left for him at Penn State, he doesn’t want them to be the only things he’s known for.
“I would say it happens,” Haley said of getting stopped by people asking about his score against the Buckeyes. “It was a special moment for me and for Penn State. At the same time, it can kind of be — not annoying, but one of those things where people say, ‘Oh, you’re the Ohio State kid.’ Because it was special.
“But I want to be remembered for more than that. Not just as a football player, but also as a student and for the type of person I am.”