Michigan Wolverines

Penn State's leading defense depends on swarming to ball

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Penn State's leading defense depends on swarming to ball

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin's whistle is the last one Penn State players hear at practice, and sometimes the coach will hesitate before he blows plays dead.

He's waiting for a satisfactory number of white helmets to charge the ball carrier. It doesn't usually take long for him to see what he wants — eight, maybe nine defenders all converging on the football.

"You can take an average defense and be a good defense just by doing that one thing," Franklin said. "I think what we've been able to do is take a good defense and take it to that next category, whatever you call it, by doing a great job of running to the football."

It's helped cue a run in which the No. 2 Nittany Lions have allowed an FBS-low 9 points per game. They'll look to continue the trend against No. 19 Michigan on Saturday. They might need to in order to keep their national championship hopes alive, as the Wolverines will bring the nation's top overall defense to Happy Valley for Saturday's primetime showdown at Beaver Stadium.

The Wolverines are allowing just 223 yards per game and, like the Nittany Lions, are swarming to make tackles.

"It's not something you think about, it's just something that happens," Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer said. "You don't really see yourself not running to the football because it's so natural."

And because it's been stressed repeatedly over Franklin's three and a half seasons in charge.

In addition to his late whistles, Franklin will regularly step away from interviews with local reporters to scream at his players to run off the practice field. Further, he can point out statistics -- such as his team's plus-12 turnover differential — supporting his claim that collective hustle makes a difference.

Without it, Franklin knows the 17 takeaways his team has this year could be much closer to the nine it had at this point last season.

"Think about how many times last year the ball was on the ground as a fumble and we didn't come up with it," Franklin said. "This year we're coming up with those fumbles because we got more people around the ball."

Franklin's philosophy is echoed by his defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who's based his schemes on one principle.

"We're a staff that believes in team speed," Pry said. "It's noticeable right now, especially in the back seven. I think we're running really well."

Pry has confidence that Penn State's athletic group of linebackers can roam sideline to sideline. Starters Jason Cabinda, Manny Bowen and Farmer — a converted safety — have combined to help on 49 tackles. On the back end, safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke and corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell have chipped in 34 helpers.

His defense's ability to pursue and gang tackle gives Pry even more confidence to call blitzes. It's made Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wary, too. Harbaugh said Monday he wasn't yet sure of the best way to attack the Penn State's defense.

"Don't see them giving up a lot of big plays in the running game or the passing game, which means they're really sound," Harbaugh said. "You can already see really good players in the front seven and in the secondary. They get to the ball, they close up gaps and they're rarely out of position."

Franklin might as well have repeated Harbaugh's concern Tuesday. Penn State's coach worked with Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown at Maryland and sees the same qualities that make his own unit so effective.

"The way they play defensive football, we're going to have some challenges," Franklin said. "You're going to be watching two of the best defensive coordinators in college football. Which probably doesn't get any more Big Ten than that, defensive football."

Cooper Marody and Brendan Warren, a 'Go Blue' bond united with Flyers

Cooper Marody and Brendan Warren, a 'Go Blue' bond united with Flyers

VOORHEES, N.J. — Brendan Warren never expected the phone call.

It was a late Friday night in mid-June. Coyotes development camp was 10 days away, so Warren had been training in preparation. The Michigan product had plans for Fourth of July, too, to follow the annual summer visit with his NHL organization.

Then his phone buzzed.

"I was shocked," he said. "It just came out of nowhere, 9:30 one night."

Warren had been traded.

"They said I'd be going to the Flyers," he said.

Arizona sent Warren and a 2018 fifth-round draft pick to the Flyers in exchange for Nick Cousins and goalie prospect Merrick Madsen. Warren, who just turned 20 years old in May and finished up his sophomore year at Michigan, had a lot change in a matter of minutes. He started texting his friends and classmates the news.

The first one to respond: Cooper Marody, Michigan teammate and Flyers prospect.

"I was actually leaving a Sam Hunt concert and I saw the text there, and I called Brendan right away and we talked for a while," Marody said. "We were both pretty pumped about it."

When Warren heard he was headed to the Flyers, Marody came right to mind. The thought of having his support in a different setting allowed for some comfort to seep in amid the emotions of being traded. Starting over — and suddenly — isn't fun, but having a friend helps.

"I was really happy," Warren said of joining Marody. "He was really excited for me.

"The more I thought about it and the more I talked to my adviser and my family, everyone said it was such a great thing for me. So I got really excited about being a part of an organization like the Flyers."


Cooper Marody and Brendan Warren (CSNPhilly.com)

There Warren was, his nameplate above a locker at Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey, right next to much-anticipated No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick. This was not only development camp, but also Warren's orientation. He was meeting a whole new organization, a band of new prospects from all parts of the world.

Reassuringly, across the dressing room was a familiar face in Marody.

"I'm glad that I can be here with him and hang around him for camp," Warren said during the Flyers' July 7-12 development session.

Marody liked the company, too.

"We're excited to be here together," Marody said. "It's a little easier going to these camps knowing somebody so well like Brendan."

As 20-year-olds with a lot in common, Warren and Marody have grown close. Both are natives of Michigan and became Wolverines in 2015 — the same year they were drafted, Warren in the third round by the Coyotes, Marody in the sixth by the Flyers. The forwards made immediate impacts in their freshman seasons, as Michigan went on to win the Big Ten championship and advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I men's ice hockey championship, where it bowed out to eventual title winner North Dakota.

"They're different players, but what is unique about them, I think they have a very strong connection," Michigan assistant coach Brian Wiseman said last week in a phone interview with CSNPhilly.com. "They're both very likable kids, they're great teammates, they care and they work hard. I think we had them playing together, oh man, a large majority of their careers, at least their first year and well into maybe their second year. I think Cooper and Brendan might have played every game together as a freshman."

Playing exclusively on the same line, Warren and Marody jelled and left an imprint. Warren appeared in all 38 games and finished with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists), including a three-assist game against Niagara. Marody put up 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 32 games, finishing second among Michigan freshmen in scoring to only Kyle Connor, a Hobey Baker Award finalist and now Winnipeg Jet.

"Both our freshman seasons, we played together and did very well, did well for our team and developed a lot of good chemistry," Marody said, "so I think we can definitely take that here [to the Flyers]."

Last season, Michigan was hit hard by departures and suffered a down year, going 13-19-3 overall and 6-12-2 in the Big Ten. Warren collected 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 35 games, while Marody scored three of his five goals in a hat trick against rival Ohio State, but played only 18 games (15 points) because of academic ineligibility, a setback that may have resulted from a sickness.

Wiseman and the Wolverines are optimistic for 2017-18, expecting jumps from both Warren and Marody as they become upperclassmen. Wiseman, who played for Michigan and has been an assistant since 2011, said Warren was a goal scorer when recruited by the Wolverines and believes that is still coming at the college level.

"Tremendous skater, high compete level, his motor is nonstop, with the ability to score," Wiseman said. "Brendan's skating ability allows him to be effective in any type of game.

"He didn't score much in the last year and a half for us. I think there's still a goal scorer in there, I know there is a goal scorer because he's got a tremendous release and he works at it often. So we're looking for that growth in that part of his game, the offensive side of the game. … He's one of our top penalty-kill unit guys.

"Brendan Warren has invested the time to be a really good hockey player. For that, I am really encouraged what this year may hold for him."

Marody is a key cog to Michigan's power play — which was tops in the country in 2015-16 — and "leads the charge offensively," Wiseman said, as far as puck possession and playing down the middle.

"Cooper is a very smart, highly intelligent hockey player, has a gift of slowing down the game, reading situations and making high-level, executed plays," Wiseman said. 

"Some of the things he can do with the puck, engaging teammates by the way he sees the ice and distributes pucks into spaces is an exceptional skill he has."

Wiseman said Michigan saw "rapid" growth from Marody in the USHL.

"I expect that type of growth at the next stop as he makes his way through Michigan and into the pro hockey route," Wiseman said.

There's still work for both as Wolverines.

"As they move along in their careers," Wiseman said, "we have some things to improve on in their individual games."


Brendan Warren and Cooper Marody (Michigan Athletics)

Wiseman's engagement with the Flyers will probably kick up a notch.

The Flyers are in constant communication with Michigan throughout the season, tracking the development of Marody. Ann Arbor, Michigan, should be a popular destination spot for the Flyers' brass now with Warren in the fold, as well.

"They'll come up to a lot of our games, send us clips of highlights of NHL plays that we can do or work on, or just little things like that," Marody said. "Ask us how we're doing, if we need any advice or anything like that. If they come out and watch us, we'll talk to them after the game and they'll let us know how we're doing."

Both Michigan and the Flyers have a rooted interest in the players, but the end goal is the same, Wiseman said.

"What we want with Cooper and Brendan now is to be a great player for the University of Michigan and to prepare them the best we can to hopefully be a Philadelphia Flyer one day," Wiseman said. "And that's [the Flyers'] goal in place, too."

Wiseman has built a relationship with Flyers development coach John Riley, the Wolverines' primary contact during a busy season. Michigan understands the importance of preparing its student-athletes for competition presently, as well as in the future.

"Like other teams and organizations, the director of player development usually goes to us," Wiseman said. "So John Riley and I, we speak often to develop Cooper within the last two years since being drafted, some of the things that they see and acknowledge in conversations, and we have the same thing. We're around the kids more on a daily basis, so we just want to make sure we're all on the same page in this development path — that's the goal."


Cooper Marody and Brendan Warren (Michigan Athletics/CSNPhilly.com)

Warren's first contact with the Flyers came as he was processing the news on the night of the trade. He heard from Riley and general manager Ron Hextall — a quick introduction and run-through of the protocol, and then back to work for Warren.

"Right after I got the call from Arizona that night, Mr. Hextall called me and said welcome, we're excited to have you," Warren said. "He then told me when camp was and what to expect a little bit. And then I got a call from John Riley, the player development coach, and he just kind of went over the same stuff. He said he's going to be my resource throughout the year and then said see you at camp."

So Warren scratched his Fourth of July plans and instead trained through the holiday and right up to the new date of his summer development camp.

"That's hockey, though," Marody said. "It's no problem."

"Absolutely," Warren said.

Wiseman expressed the same message. As an assistant coach at the Division I level, his players are not only student-athletes but also NHL prospects. Wiseman is involved for guidance and support in situations such as Warren's this summer.

"I wanted to let him process it, so I reached out to him the next day just to explain, 'Hey, this is what pro hockey is about — some of these things do happen,'" Wiseman said. "Because I know that he's been dialed in with the Arizona Coyotes since he was 18. This is the aspect of pro hockey that sometimes we may not like, but it's reality. But he was excited about the opportunity.

"I didn't sense any disappointment or have to pick and cheer up the kid. He understood that this is what it is and he was ready to go forward."

Did Marody give Warren a Flyers introduction?

"Not really," Marody said. "I think a lot of it speaks for itself. It's obviously a huge, big-time organization with tons of history. We both know it's a tremendous honor to be prospects here and we're just looking forward to the future."

At development camp, Warren and Marody made for obvious roommates, which was actually somewhat fresh because they don't live together at Michigan.

"We see plenty of each other, we don't need to room together," Marody said with a laugh.

The "Go Blue" boys enjoyed the experience together — and hope it's the first of more to come.

"It's like you grow together with these experiences," Warren said, "and hopefully one day we're both here playing for the Flyers.

"That's the main goal."

Taking the road from Ann Arbor to Philadelphia.

"Being here, it's very inspiring for both of us I think," Marody said. "We both believe that we can do it and that we'll be up here someday."

Wiseman sees the potential behind it all.

"There's still some growth in these two kids, but they have a tremendous foundation to be really good players," Wiseman said. "And not only for us, but I think to make the Philly people, the Flyers' organization and some of your fan support really interested in the prospects."