STATE COLLEGE — Over the past month, Penn State’s defensive line has developed into one of the more well-rounded units in the Big Ten Conference.
The unit, referred to as the “Wild Dogs” by associate head coach/defensive line coach Sean Spencer, ranks second in the country with 43 sacks, and third in tackles for loss at 8.3 per game.
Ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller are the stars of the defensive line. Either can take over a game at any moment and both possess NFL futures.
Defensive tackle Robert Windsor is one of the more improved players on the roster, and he ranks seventh in the conference with eight sacks.
The less-heralded engine behind the disruptive front four is defensive tackle Kevin Givens.
“I just want to do my job,” Givens said. “I really don’t care about all the attention. As long as we win and I do my job, that’s all that matters to me.”
The Altoona native goes about his business quietly. Reporters who seek to interview him in postgame press conferences are sure to hold their recorders as close to Givens as possible, as the 6-foot-1, 283-pounder talks quietly.
His performances, however, speak loudly to his teammates.
“Kevin is not going to be the most outgoing guy, but we have a lot of respect for him and his work ethic,” safety Nick Scott said. “He’s continued to grow, and he’s been an outstanding player and teammate.”
‘Doing his job’
The defensive line’s emergence into a Big Ten juggernaut was on full display in Saturday’s 38-3 blowout win over Maryland, which set the Nittany Lions at 9-3 and awaiting a bowl bid.
Terrapins running back Anthony McFarland was coming off back-to-back 200-yard performances against Indiana and Ohio State. Against Penn State, he struggled to generate any running room.
McFarland finished with just 12 yards. As a team, Maryland registered 74 yards on 36 attempts.
Terrapins quarterback Tyrell Pigrome was under duress all afternoon, getting sacked five times.
Givens was at the heart of shutting down Maryland, collecting two sacks and four total tackles. That followed a similar strong showing in a win over Rutgers a week prior, when he notched five tackles and 1.5 for loss. One of his backfield stops came on a crucial third down inside the Penn State 2-yard line.
“I’ve just been having fun. It’s always fun in the season,” Givens said. “I’m just sad it’s about to be over, but I’ve still got work to do next year. Time goes fast when you’re in college.”
Coach James Franklin said Givens’ impact goes well beyond what pops up on the stat sheet.
“The guy that’s not getting a whole lot of love is Kevin Givens. But Kevin Givens, for us, is killing it. He’s doing his job consistently,” Franklin said. “Sometimes when you do that, other guys shine. But as a coaching staff and as a team, we know the value that Kevin’s bringing.
“And then although we’ve had a number of injuries, again that we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about, you’re seeing other guys having to step up and make plays for us as well, which has been great.”
Fellow defensive tackle Antonio Shelton echoed Franklin’s sentiments, stating that what Givens does on the inside allows other players along the line to do their jobs a bit easier.
“A lot of things that Kevin does, he sets other guys up to be successful,” Shelton said. “Like (against Wisconsin), there’s this play where the backside, he’s on the left side. The right guard pulled and (Givens) knocked his guard into the pulling guard and it completely messed the play up, ended up going for a TFL. Little things like that Kevin does, he’s always in the right position doing his job. That allows the defense to play how we play.”
‘A rare athlete’
While Givens is a little undersized for an interior lineman — he was a fullback and outside linebacker coming out of Altoona Area High School — his teammates and coaches have raved about his athleticism.
He uses his power and quickness to outmaneuver offensive linemen, and he’s shown great versatility in his career.
While the team dealt with injuries at defensive end during the 2017 season, Givens was forced to kick outside to defensive end, starting and excelling in the role in a loss to Michigan State.
“Kevin is one of the most athletic people I’ve ever seen,” Shelton said. “It’s kind of scary. You don’t expect someone to be that big and strong and at the same time be athletic.”
Penn State tight ends coach Tyler Bowen had to help game-plan for Givens as Maryland’s offensive line coach a season ago.
Bowen said he always came away impressed by Given’s athleticism any time he turned on his game tape.
“In a lot of ways, he’s just a rare athlete,” Bowen said. “It’s a different skillset than a guard or center normally sees. And on the edge, being able to hold the point and limit things in the run game, playing on tight ends, things like that, he can be a matchup nightmare.”