Penn State’s Jay Alford, right, sacks Central Michigan quarterback Kent Smith last season at Beaver Stadium.AP PHOTO
Before Penn State left the visiting team’s locker room at the Metrodome to take on Minnesota last month, defensive line coach Larry Johnson pulled one of his key starters aside.
His message to Jay Alford was short and to the point.
“He told me, ‘Jay, you’re going to have to let it go and play your game,’” the D-tackle recalled. “And that’s what I did.”
The senior from Orange, N.J., played a key role in the Nittany Lions’ tight battle with the Golden Gophers, recording a career-high seven tackles, including four for loss, in a 28-27 overtime victory.
“Coach Johnson didn’t think I was playing up to my potential, and I didn’t think I was playing up to my potential,” Alford said.
It’s not the first time the 6-foot-3, 288-pound fifth-year player needed a push in the right direction.
Alford came to Penn State in 2002 from Orange High School, where he was selected first-team all-state as well as a U.S. Army All-American in his senior season. It was easy to see why he was rated by most of the national recruiting services as one of the top defensive ends in the nation. As a senior, Alford collected 100 tackles and 12 sacks, while causing five fumbles and recovering two.
Everything pointed to a big career in Happy Valley for Alford. That is, until one minor issue popped up at the end of Alford’s redshirt freshman year.
Johnson and the rest of Penn State’s defensive staff believed Alford was best suited to play inside at tackle. The player desperately wanted to stay at end.
“I wanted to leave,” Alford said. “I didn’t think I had the size or the strength to be a defensive tackle. I was small. I just didn’t think things would turn out right.”
At just 255 pounds, Alford wasn’t sure he could handle the double teams he was sure to see from the massive interior line combinations throughout the Big Ten. His initial experience during Penn State practices did little to boost his confidence.
“The guard or center drove me back and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. “It was hard.”
Alford thought about transferring to Miami, one of the schools he considered before choosing Penn State. “I wanted to play defensive end and Miami said they would play me at end,” he said. “But I’m glad I didn’t make any changes.”
Another one-on-one with Johnson convinced the young athlete that, through hard work and perseverance, everything would be all right.
“When he moved me inside, he said, ‘It’s going to be a long hoe, but it’s going to be OK,’” Alford said.
Some 30-plus pounds later, Alford has become a force in the middle for the Lions’ stingy defense. Heading into today’s game at Wisconsin, the preseason All-America candidate leads the team in sacks (6.0 for minus-34 yards) and tackles for loss (9.5 for minus-40). He’s forced a fumble and recovered another.
Alford lost a touchdown against Northwestern when his 35-yard return of a fumble was overturned because officials ruled the quarterback’s arm was moving forward when the ball came loose, making it an incomplete pass.
He capped his moment in the sun by doing a somersault in the end zone, much to the chagrin of his head coach. Making matters worse, the big guy was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“He said if I do it again, I’m going to be on the scout team,” said Alford of Joe Paterno’s reaction. “And he was serious.”
These days, Paterno only has praise for his defensive tackle, who earned a game ball last week after posting two sacks and helping limit the Purdue offense, ranked No. 8 in the nation, to 246 total yards.
“Jay Alford is a very, very fine football player,” the veteran coach said.
The Lions must get big efforts from Alford and fellow tackle Ed Johnson this afternoon if they intend to contain a fierce Wisconsin ground attack led by redshirt freshman running back P.J. Hill, the Big Ten’s leading rusher.
“Our biggest challenge is stopping the run,” Alford said. “If we can do that we should be OK. This would be a very big win for us.”