Chaos theory: Passion big part of success for PSU’s Spencer
UNIVERSITY PARK — The guy is, admittedly, a little crazy. James Franklin says that, too, about Sean Spencer, Penn State’s highly successful defensive line coach.
So, what’s crazy about him?
“Other than a tattoo that says ‘CHAOS?'” Spencer answers with a laugh while showing off the big letters on his right forearm.
Yeah, besides that.
“You know what, I just enjoy life, man,” he added in his typical upbeat voice. “I come to work every day with a smile on my face. I’m fired up all the time.”
But as he talks more and more about himself, and you hear others talk about him, you realize something.
Crazy isn’t the right word to describe Spencer.
Neither is chaos, even if that is part his nickname — Coach Chaos.
No, there’s another word that more accurately sums up Spencer. A word that makes him special, not only on the Penn State coaching staff, but also in all of college football.
“He’s a passionate guy,” Franklin said.
“His passion,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry agreed. “And I say passion, it’s passion for his guys. He loves those guys. He’d do anything for them. He has constant conversations with those guys about things that need to happen on and off the field.”
A lot of coaches are passionate about their players. Or at least a lot of them say they’re passionate about their players.
Spencer takes it to the fullest extent.
“I think (coaches) all talk about it, and we want that all for ourselves, but it takes a major investment,” Pry said. “He’s made that a priority in his coaching career. The relationship that he has with his players, to me, is super impactful in how productive they are and how hard they play.”
“The No. 1 thing is those kids love playing for him,” offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said. “You know, we’re going to recruit really, really good players here. That goes without saying. But then to be able to maximize what those guys do with those talents, that’s a huge thing Spence is able to bring to the table.”
Spencer is about to enter his sixth season with the Nittany Lions this fall, and without question, the most reliably consistent part of the team during Franklin’s tenure has been the defensive line.
Penn State recruits excellent players to play on the D-line. What Spencer is able to do with those players, and the strides he helps them make in their development, is a big part of why the Lions have a chance in each and every game.
The D-line gets down and dirty in the trenches on every play, it’s almost always extremely deep, and the unit turns out pro prospects on a regular basis.
Spencer first discussed consistency when asked why the line is so strong year in and year out.
“It’s a combination of me going into my sixth year, so everybody in the room has heard the exact same things from freshman to senior,” he said. “When you create that culture, those guys begin to police themselves, and those guys know how to fix problems before they get to me.”
The players all know what’s on the line, he noted, and they help one another by pointing out things in practice.
That’s an interesting dynamic, too, because at the end of the day, the linemen are all competing for playing time. But even though the competition amongst them is strong, so is the respect from player to player to help each other out.
“Those guys know that every day they’re fighting for their lives,” Spencer said. “And the guy behind him, as much as he supports him, wants to be in front of him. But it’s a brotherhood that you create.
“There’s a difference between competition and being jealous, or being negative. We don’t have that. That does not surface. Those guys handle all that early on.”
There’s no question that a big reason PSU’s defensive line is so good is because Spencer rotates in so many players, keeping everyone fresh throughout the course of a game.
That sounds so simple. Surely everybody does it, right?
Actually, that’s not the case across college football.
Many teams have taken to subbing frequently on the D-line, such as Ohio State, where former PSU assistant Larry Johnson is in charge of the unit. But none other than Alabama plays its starters for most of the game, rarely subbing, and many of PSU’s opponents fall into that category, too.
“Everyone wants to play,” Spencer said. “No one comes and says, ‘I’m going to go to Penn State, I’m going to be the backup D-end.’ That’s not what they signed up for. They come to Penn State, they want to start, they want to play.
“We play a lot of guys. And because we play a lot of guys, there’s a lot of guys knowing that they’re going to get reps in the game. I’m going to put them in in the middle of a game when the game is on the line, and I have faith and trust that I can do that. That makes the room a lot better.”
There’s an interesting balance that takes place with how Spencer, along with Pry, chooses to sub on defense.
In many games, there will be crucial drives for the opposing offense in a tight contest, and the Lions will have a lot of backup defenders on the field.
Isn’t that dangerous?
“Obviously if a guy’s starting, he’s better than the backup,” Spencer said. “However, that starter at 50 percent is not better than 100 percent by your backup guy.
“We just feel like the accumulation of reps over the game and the accumulation of us continuously rushing the O-linemen with a new guy and a fresh body will give us a chance to be fresh at the end.”
Limegrover can attest to how all of that winds up affecting the opposing offensive linemen.
“You try as an offensive line coach to sell the idea of, OK, we’re going to wear them down,” Limegrover said. “So the teams that don’t play a lot of guys, you try and have that psychological advantage of, OK, they may be pretty stout early on, but as the game goes on, we’re going to impose our will because they’re going to be worn out.
“When you see that assembly line just rolling in and out, and all of a sudden now you’ve just gone four plays of a series against a guy and there’s another guy in there and he’s completely fresh, that kind of mentally swings the other way. They’re constantly bringing those fresh guys in to play as hard as they can for as long as they can and get somebody else in there.”
What Spencer has going for him is two-fold. He’s incredibly passionate about his players, and he can offer a lot of players an opportunity to play. Put those two together, and it helps Spencer get the absolute most out of his players, and at Penn State, he’s always going to have very good players.
That’s what you call a win-win-win.
Throw in Spencer’s passionate personality being a bit crazy, and it’s easy to see why PSU’s D-line is consistently strong.
“Every time I go out on that practice field, they’re going to have to match my energy,” Spencer said of his players. “I’m never going to come out to practice like, I just got a parking ticket or something, I just had a bad day. No. I’m coming out to practice with a purpose. It’s to get them better and to make myself better.
“I try to be as real as I can with my players,” he added. “I’m an open book to them. They can come in my office, they can sit down and talk to me at any time. I don’t always tell them what they want to hear. They really respect that. I tell them exactly where it’s coming from, and it’s always from a good place.”
Along with everything he does well as a coach, Spencer is a tremendous recruiter. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given his personality, PSU’s D-line success and the program’s overall strength.
“I keep it 100 percent real with the guys,” Spencer said of his recruiting secret. “If I’m recruiting you and I don’t feel that you’re a fit for Penn State, I’m going to tell you you’re not a fit for Penn State but you could play Division I football somewhere.
“I’m going to be the same guy that, when I’m at the table with the parents, I’ll be the same guy with the kids. I don’t change. I have my own personality. Coach calls me crazy, and that’s fine, he loves it. He lets me live in my own skin.”