They arrived at Penn State at the same time — Marcus Allen from Maryland, Grant Haley from Georgia.
Both play in the secondary, but both bring very different approaches.
“Marcus is bubbly, outgoing, full of energy, huge smile on his face, dancing, laughing, clowning other guys, me, other players, everybody,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “He’s just a ball of positive energy.
“Grant is completely different. Grant has probably said 32 words (in four years). He’s more reserved, he’s Mr. Dependable, you know what you’re getting with Grant every day. You know what you’re getting with Grant every play.
“That’s the thing that’s so cool is they’re all so intelligent and articulate and those types of things — just they’re packaged differently. Marcus is crazy and Grant is more reserved. I could see Marcus being on some type of movie or comedy show. And I could see Grant running for politics one day.”
Together, they teamed up for what will go down as one of the biggest plays in Penn State history.
As the Lions prepare to head into Columbus Saturday to face Ohio State, they’re just past the one-year anniversary of Allen blocking a late Buckeyes field goal and Haley scooping it up for the winning touchdown at a delirious Beaver Stadium.
The victory vaulted Penn State firmly back onto the national radar, fueling the program to its fourth Big Ten championship — and its first outright conference title since 1994.
“I think it was a huge win for our program, and obviously it gave us confidence throughout the season last year and even coming into this year,” Haley said. “I think we just needed really that one game where we were able to go against a top team and come out victorious.
“I think that each week after that, we just kept believing in each other more and more. … So I think it just translated from the field to the locker room and back and forth, and it’s just really gave us that confidence and leadership and maturity that we have today.”
Listed at 5-foot-9, Haley’s size hasn’t been a hindrance in his college career. And his senior season for the Lions has been his best yet.
Haley has two interceptions but hasn’t had too many opportunities for more because opponents haven’t been looking his way much. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks have the lowest passer rating when throwing at Haley compared to all other corners in the Big Ten.
So it wasn’t too much of a surprise on Monday when both Haley and Allen were named as semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back at the end of the season.
Allen had led the Lions in tackles for much of the early season and is now second behind linebacker Jason Cabinda with 41. Allen’s ability to come up in run support has been key to the defense’s success this season.
As it is, Allen has cracked the top 10 in career tackles at the school — no small feat for a safety at Linebacker U.
“When you know where you come from and how much hard work, extra work you’ve put into this, you’re bound to have confidence,” Allen said. “So it’s just that hard work pays off, and we’re definitely not letting our foot off the gas.”
It was repetition that helped Allen start last season’s biggest play. On an earlier Buckeyes field goal try, Allen had just missed getting a piece of a kick. He had the height on his jump but not the placement.
Given a second chance, he didn’t miss.
Of course, the Lions will need a new approach on the field goal unit on Saturday. In the offseason, the NCAA changed the rule so that players can no longer take a running start to leap at the line for safety reasons.
Naturally, both players fielded questions about the play this week. For their part, they don’t want to put too much focus on 2016 while preparing for their most anticipated game of the 2017 season.
“Don’t really watch (the replay) that much any more,” Haley said. “It’s been a year, so kind of moving on and getting excited for this upcoming game this week.”
That’s the present. As for the future, the play will continue to grow in Penn State lore as one of the most significant outside of a bowl game in the school’s 129 seasons.
More than any one play, Franklin believes the impact of the players involved will also be felt in the years to come.
“I would probably say the best way to describe them is they’re culture drivers,” Franklin said, throwing Cabinda into that group as well. “That’s really what they are. Those guys have taken the culture that we wanted to have at Penn State and they have driven it home in every area — recruiting, player development, how to conduct themselves in the classroom, in the community, with the media.
“They are culture drivers, and we will be forever indebted to them because those guys are going to leave here and they’re going to leave a legacy.”