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Penn State's Spring Defensive Motto: 'Let's Get It'

The Lions are changing under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Safety Ji'Ayir Brown offers insight into how.

STATE COLLEGE | Safety Ji'Ayir Brown returned to Penn State with the objective of becoming a leader. And he connected quickly with new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz over their like-minded purpose.

"I saw that he's a leader, and he saw that I'm a leader. That's how we bonded," Brown said. "Both of us wanting the same thing: for this to be one of the best defenses to ever come through Penn State."

Though offense naturally generated the most interest at Penn State's Blue-White Game, the Lions' almost entirely new defense proved an essential focus of spring drills. Diaz arrived at Penn State in December, still reeling from the end of his term as Miami's head coach, looking for a place to re-anchor himself as a defensive coordinator.

He also faced the imposing prospect of replacing former coordinator Brent Pry, who had become one of James Franklin's key confidants over their decade together. Diaz was the outsider who needed to assess the landscape quickly. So he turned to Brown.

The safety was a natural conduit for Diaz to learn about Penn State's defense. Brown was responsible for eight of Penn State's 21 forced turnovers last season, when he tied for the national lead with six interceptions. As they got to know each other, Diaz found himself gravitating to Brown more and more.

"If you want a guy that you're honored to coach," Diaz said earlier this spring, "this is the guy."

Brown, Diaz and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who is returning from an injury that ended his 2021 season, form the center of Penn State's new defense. It's one that Franklin has promised will feature a few new wrinkles. It's also one that several players described as intense about tackling assignments this spring.

Brown said that the defense wrapped those changes into one spring slogan that it will carry into the fall.

"Let's get it," Brown said. "What 'let's get it' means is, let's go after the guy. Let's be on offense even though we're on defense. We're trying to attack guys, not have people attack us. That's been the motto all spring for the whole defense."

Having decided to return before the bowl game, Brown demonstrated his commitment this spring. Franklin routinely called Brown one of the players with whom he has been most impressed, a rarity for veterans.

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Franklin knows what he has in players like Brown and quarterback Sean Clifford. So the coach often turns his attention instead to younger players who make demonstrable leaps year over year. But Brown stood out after maintaining his commitment to turnovers (he had three interceptions and two forced fumbles this spring) while becoming the voice of the defense.

"The reason I came back is, I wanted to be more of a leader," Brown said. "I wanted to be that player-coach that coaches look for. The challenge for me this spring was, how well can I lead? I took that challenge and I feel like I did a great job connecting with my players on and off the field."

Brown said he gauged plenty of improvement across the defense, notably at his position group. Redshirt freshman Zakee Wheatley, for instance, led the defense in takeaways this spring after making the transition from cornerback to safety. Meanwhile, Keaton Ellis and Jaylen Reed contribute to a room that might be the team's deepest.

But on-field work isn't where Brown saw the most improvement from his defense.

"It's our passion," Brown said. "We've got guys coming into new roles that want to be leaders, showing that they can be leaders. I feel like we've got a whole defense that wants to be leaders and wants to be the guy. They’re diving into plays, they’re diving into film, they’re learning as much as they can to try to benefit the team and help everyone else. You can’t ask for better than that; a team full of leaders."

Asked about his penchant for turnovers, Brown said, "I'm coming back to lead the nation again." As for the rest of the defense, Brown made a prediction.

"Every new guy you’re going to see on the field this fall is going to be a tremendous player," Brown said. "They’re going to shock the world, from the defensive line to the linebackers to the [secondary]. They're all going to come in and have a tremendous impact on the game."

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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.