Blair County Lions Club

Penn State roster includes three area players

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Altoona Area High School grad Kevin Givens made 26 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Penn State defensive tackle Kevin Givens talks to reporters during media day at Beaver Stadium.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Kevin Givens was asked a simple question about how he thought he played last season, and it became a funny moment when he turned the tables on the reporter.

“Well, what did you think?” Givens asked his interviewer during Penn State’s media day Saturday.

The Altoona Area High School product wasn’t being a smart aleck about it or anything, nor was he trying to dodge the question. He just honestly didn’t know how to answer because he’s a rare breed of humble young athlete who simply doesn’t like talking about himself.

“I don’t like to brag, and I don’t really know because I can’t tell how I did,” Givens said. “I’ve got high expectations. I would say I had a normal year, I guess.”

Far better than just “normal,” Givens turned a lot of heads during a productive redshirt freshman season. The defensive tackle played in all 14 games, starting six, recorded seven tackles for loss and 4 ¢ sacks, plus he recovered two fumbles and broke up one pass.

Givens definitely did his hometown proud in his first season on the field with the Nittany Lions.

There haven’t been many Blair County products who have made a significant impact at Penn State over the past 30 years. That’s changing now, though, thanks in large part to Givens, and also potentially with two more local products who are members of the Lions.

Hollidaysburg Area High School’s Zach Simpson appeared in 12 games on special teams a year ago as a redshirt freshman and could get opportunities to play on the offensive line this year, either at center or guard.

A third Blair County player on the PSU squad is Central’s Alex Hoenstine, a preferred walk-on freshman receiver who always dreamed of becoming a Nittany Lion.

“I think it says a lot,” Simpson said of the Blair County connection. “People in Pennsylvania talk a lot about Pittsburgh schools and Philly schools having a lot of recruits. I think central PA has a lot of big-time talent.

“Obviously Kevin, he’s an unbelievable athlete and has dome some amazing things already. I’m just excited to be a part of it. I think central PA football, as evidenced by me, Kevin and Alex, I think we can play a little bit, and I’m glad we can represent up here.”

He didn’t play against Simpson when they were in high school, but Givens has been able to spend some time with his fellow Blair County product.

“I actually got to know him being up here,” Givens said. “He gave me a couple rides back up to school, and we talked.

“It’s definitely nice having people to relate to where you come from and how special it is to be up here at Penn State.”

SUBHD: Givens having fun

Givens is probably the only one who couldn’t quite analyze his play last season. An incredibly strong young man, at times he looked unstoppable exploding into the backfield to disrupt plays.

“This camp, I’m just focusing on improving what I messed up on last year and doing whatever I can to not make mistakes on the field,” Givens said.

Those “mistakes,” he specified, were about consistency and learning the ins and outs of playing defensive tackle after moving from end. Givens was the talk of the team in the spring of 2016 and showed why last fall.

He’s made a lot of strides in the past 12 months, on and off the field.

“Just growing up, being more mature, getting my feet wet starting the first couple games up here, just learning how to be a college football player,” he said.

And what does it take to be a college football player?

“A lot of dedication, good time management, a lot of help from family, friends,” he said. “You’ve just got to love the game.”

Givens weighed 235 pounds when he got to Penn State and is at 285 now, which is where he figures he’ll stay.

With more experience, which Givens certainly will get the next three years, there’s no telling how good he can become. As for this year’s goals playing the 3 technique?

“I think I could be a fast-twitch guy inside, I could be a guy coming off the bench and make sparks, be a leader to the young guys and somebody to change the game in special moments,” he said.

One thing that certainly helps Givens and PSU’s other defensive linemen is how much they rotate, with position coach Sean Spencer frequently making changes to keep everyone fresh. Givens is so strong, and when he’s fresh, he can overpower tired offensive linemen when he’s playing during clutch, late-game situations.

“It’s definitely a benefit for us that (Spencer) rotates us,” Givens said. “Going into the fourth quarter, you see lot of the offensive linemen tired, bending over, but I’m just up and ready for the next play.”

It’s well known that Givens initially committed to play at Pitt before switching late to PSU, and that decision has worked out wonderful for both him and the Lions.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Givens said. “I’m definitely blessed to be up here. It’s definitely a special place to play football.”

SUBHD: Simpson’s gains

Simpson came to Penn State as a preferred walk-on who weighed 265 pounds. He’s now up to 300 after a couple of years, and with the bigger frame, he stands to make a bigger impact as his career progresses.

He appeared primarily on kickoff return last year, and he started at right guard in the Blue-White Game in April.

“I’d say I’m definitely more confident, just knowing the offense, knowing what I have to do and just knowing the offensive line play in general,” Simpson said. “As a center and guard, I have to know where I need to be and also where others need to be, so I’m just more confident.

“(Playing) in practice is one thing and we go against great players, and then to get out on the field that absolutely boosts confidence.”

The weight gain, he noted, was something Simpson figured he would be able to handle upon arriving at Penn State.

“I kind of came in with a frame that I felt like I could grow and still get stronger and bigger,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve been able to do that.”

How has he done it?

“It’s a little bit of everything, really,” Simpson said. “It’s a lot of lifting. Offensive linemen, our diets aren’t too strict, but you have to still watch what you eat. And eat a lot.”

Simpson should see a lot of action on special teams again this season, perhaps also on the punt unit, and he could get be called upon in a game if something happens to a starter at guard or center.

“I’m going to be working in practice and camp here, and I’ll be ready if an opportunity comes up,” he said.

SUBHD: Hoenstine like Walker

Something defensive coordinator Brent Pry heard about Hoenstine during the recruiting process made him take special notice.

“There were a lot of folks talking about him like they talked about Von Walker,” Pry said. “And when they said that to me, it struck a chord, and I had to dive in a little deeper.”

Walker was a two-time captain and special teams ace for the Lions the past few years.

“I do liken him to Von,” Pry said of Hoenstine. “I think he’s a guy that can play defensive back, can play receiver, he’s going to fit a couple different areas on special teams. He’s got to get a little bigger and stronger right now.

“A lot of those guys that come out of high school and have done a bunch of sports — and he was a big baseball guy — those guys haven’t had a chance to lift and develop in the weight room maybe like some other guys. So he’s got to get bigger and stronger, but I think he’ll have a chance. He’ll surprise some people how athletic he is. He’s a unique athlete that has a good work ethic that was well-versed in a couple of sports. I think getting a guy like that into the program to come in and give it a shot is a win-win for Penn State and for him.”

Penn State receives a staggering number of walk-on requests each year, and Hoenstine was one of the very few who made the cut.

“We probably get 500 walk-on requests, maybe more than that, each offseason,” Pry said. “We get flooded. You can’t turn your email on without a couple of guys, a couple of coaches recommending some guys that would like to walk on and pass on a scholarship to a lower-level school.

“So obviously those guys that are in-state guys, we’re going to look at those guys first and look at them the hardest. … It’s more and more competitive to walk on to this program. The spots are few, and there’s so many guys who would like to have one. We’re fortunate to get Hoenstine in here, and he’s fortunate, as well.”