Manny Diaz is no stranger to elite defenses.
Penn State Football held opponents under 20 points nine times in 2022, something they did only six times under previous defensive coordinator Brent Pry in 2021.
In a dominating stretch to finish last season, Diaz’ defense gave up just 12 points per game in Penn State’s last five.
Manny Diaz is returning for a second season in Happy Valley, and hoping to build on a strong debut for the Nits last year.
Last season he coordinated an aggressive style of defense that ranked among the nation’s top 10 in scoring, turnover margin, sacks, tackles for loss, passes defended, red-zone defense and fumbles forced.
The Lions fielded a three-level unit that had six starters named All-Big Ten.
— Nittany Central (@NittanyCentral) August 9, 2023
If you recall, the Miami native spent just about a week unemployed back in the off-season of 2021 after a failed stint as the head man at the University of Miami.
So, if it looks like Diaz is coaching with a chip on his shoulder that’s because he is.
Will Manny Diaz Stay at Penn State Football?
For most guys going from the head man back to a coordinator role would feel like a demotion.
But the architect of the “Turnover Chain” a few years ago while the head defensive man at the U, which has since exploded into other major sports cultures masked in contrived celebratory imitations, doesn’t see it that way.
When asked recently what type of opportunity it would take for him to accept a head coaching job Diaz replied as if he had the answer already loaded in one of his chambers.
“Being the defensive coordinator at Penn State is a better job than being the head coach at a lot of different schools,” Diaz said.
Okay, so he’s got the sound bite thing down and yes there’s probably some truth to that too.
Being a head coach or CEO of a major program isn’t for everybody.
Some guys are just better suited for specificity rather than overseeing all aspects of a football unit. That’s not to say that Diaz isn’t head coach material.
The jury is still out on that as his story is still being written.
One thing for sure is that he certainly does shine when charged with running a defense at a high level.
Last March, Max Chadwick of Pro Football Focus released a list of his top 10 defensive coordinators in college football. After only one year at Penn State, Diaz was ranked number five among all defensive coordinators in college football.
But, Diaz has no time for accolades on his body of work in year one in Happy Valley.
“We do not pick up where we left off a year ago,” Diaz told reporters during Penn State media day. “And that comes back to how we run to the football, how we leverage the football, how we set edges, our toughness, and how we tackle in camp.”
Let’s be clear: to win a National Championship Diaz and his defense HAS to be elite.
Diaz needs to usurp the likes of the Michigans, Ohio States and the Georgias of the world. But, having 75 percent of his production back from last year’s team doesn’t hurt.
“So here’s our blessing and our curse,” Diaz said at Big Ten Media Day last week. “At every position, we have a lot of guys who have played, so we know that they know they can go into a high-level Big Ten game and function and play well. The question is, who’s going to be the ace? Because at almost every position we lost the ace: Ji’Ayir Brown, Joey Porter, Jr., (Jonathan) Sutherland at linebacker, Nick Tarburton and PJ Mustipher [on the defensive line]. We really lost some key guys.
“So, who’s going to step up from a leadership standpoint, and who knows that my level of consistency has to be there week in and week out? That’s really what happens when you’re the A player, when you’ve got to bring it every down, every rep. That to me is the difference.”
Diaz has the luxury of coaching sophomore linebacker Abdul Carter, who could be the defense’s most intriguing and perhaps most dominant player this season. Carter can play at a variety of positions, including as an edge rusher on passing downs.
Diaz and the coaching staff have high expectations of him. But of course they pale compared to the ones Carter has for himself.
“I don’t think Abdul came here to be mediocre in anything,” Diaz said. “I don’t think he came here to be part of a mediocre team in any way, shape or form. And I think it stands to reason that, the more he played a year ago, the better we played.
“He helped raise our level of play. And now it’s on to year two. I just told him, ‘What you did a year ago isn’t good enough anymore. There’s got to be some sort of development and improvement. Otherwise, we’re just settling for what was.’ And I don’t think Abdul wants to do that.”
As for the Nits’ dynamic star junior cornerback Kalen King, who’s first year as a starter saw him pick off three balls last season including the game-changer in last year’s Rose Bowl win over Utah, it’s a similar situation and philosophy.
“What we’re looking for is that you don’t get to carry what you did a year ago into this season,” Diaz explained. “And the first thing when you’re talking about anything with a defensive back is a sense of urgency and playing with that chip on your shoulder which I really thought he did a great job of a year ago when he was really the unknown because everybody was talking about Joey (Porter, Jr.).
“Everyone knows who number four is right now but you cannot lose that edge that you had about you that really made you great the year before…I think if he brings that every day here in the month of August then he should have all the confidence in what he’s demonstrated in games and we have all the confidence in him but as we tell Kalen and the entire defense – that resets and that restarts every off-season.”