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Tom Allen: Penn State Defense’s Expectations

Tom Allen Penn State Defense

2024 Preview: Tom Allen New Penn State Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach

Penn State has a well-deserved legacy as a strong defensive unit.  They are not called “Linebacker U” for nothing.  Consequently, coaching that unit comes with big responsibility, and it takes a big-time coach to lead a big-time unit.  Tom Allen joins the Penn State coaching staff in 2024 leading the defense as the new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.  He replaced Manny Diaz, who left Penn State after a solid run as defensive coordinator, to become the head coach at Duke University.

Another component is strong Florida roots.  Therefore, Allen’s impact on recruiting could also be something to watch.  Penn State has traditionally been strong in and around Pennsylvania, including New Jersey, Maryland, and Ohio.  Expanding the pipeline into Florida would be a worthwhile development.

Get to Know Tom Allen: Tenure at Indiana

Before Tom Allen was hired to take over the Penn State defense, he was Head Coach at Indiana University.  He arrived there in 2016 as defensive coordinator.  After one season, when Head Coach Kevin Wilson resigned, Allen was promoted to the big chair.  He did not look back.  Despite a roller-coaster tenure, he was a successful coach overall for the Hoosiers, an athletics department better known for their exploits on the hardwood with basketball than the gridiron with football.


As a testament to Allen’s roots in Florida, perhaps the defensive-minded coach’s most well-known recruit was a quarterback.  Michael Penix, Jr. is a great case study into what happened with Allen’s tenure in Bloomington.  While Penix showed up on the national radar during his two years with the Washington Huskies, he showed promise and potential during his time with Indiana.  As profiled at 247sports, Penix’s offer was pulled by Tennessee.  Allen and all ten on-field coaches flew to Florida to recruit Penix.  He fought injuries in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. A sign of the man that Tom Allen is, they mutually agreed that a new start was best for Penix.  He moved on to Washington and the rest is history.


The highlights of Allen’s tenure as head coach at Indiana were in 2019 and 2020.  In 2019, Allen’s third year as Head Coach, the Hoosiers won eight games and lost five (including a five-win, four-loss record in the Big Ten).  They peaked at #16 in November before losing to ninth-ranked Penn State 34-27 at Beaver Stadium.  The Hoosiers played Tennessee in the Gator Bowl and lost 23-22.

In the 2020 season, shortened by Covid, Allen’s team hit their stride.  The first game was a victory for the unranked Hoosiers over the eighth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions by a score of 36-35 in overtime.  They finished the year with six wins and two losses (including six wins and only a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten).  The season culminated with a 26-20 loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl.  This success is important when considering Allen’s fit with the Penn State defense.  No matter who the opponent was, the Hoosiers were ready and played hard.  Logically, this attitude should be present with the Nittany Lions (as it was with Diaz).

After losing Penix and a lot of assistants, the program was not the same.  The downward spiral began in 2021, when the Hoosiers started the season as #16 in Preseason rankings.  They finished the year with two wins and ten losses, including no wins in nine Big Ten games.  2022 showed a slight improvement, to four wins and eight losses overall, and 2023 would be Allen’s last year in Bloomington with a record of three wins and nine losses.  Metaphorically, Allen has seen the peaks and valleys of Big Ten football and his experience will be a resource for the defense, and for James Franklin.

What to Expect from Allen’s Penn State Defense

Tom Allen takes over a defense that did not have much wrong with it. In 2023, Manny Diaz’s Penn State defense excelled in many ways. The Nittany Lions led the nation in sacks. They were also first in yards allowed per game while ranking third in points per game. It will be important for Allen, as a new voice leading the defense, build on the success of the past as he pushes for improvements.

Certainly, football is a team sport.  Consequently, with 11 players on each side of the ball, success depends on everyone doing their job.  While at Indiana, Allen used a simple acronym to preach the importance of teamwork and being there for each other.  It was “L.E.O.” which stands for Love Each Other.  Allen will look to bring that same attitude to his Penn State defense.  

Undeniably, Allen prioritizes tackling, takeaways, and effort.  That points to a focus on the fundamentals which will drive strong tackling.  Additionally, being there for each other (LEO) enhances the gang-tackling aspect of the game.  Takeaways are obviously momentum changers and frequently finding the winner of the takeaway battle means finding the winner of the game.  Effort is self-explanatory.  As the head coach of a relatively smaller Big Ten football program going against teams like Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State each year, the effort is a big differentiator.

Of course, offseason motivational press conferences and practices are important.  Ultimate success is determined by results on the field.  Allen brings learnings from his tenure at Indiana, in the Head Coach seat, with him to Happy Valley.  Players have reacted well to Allen so far.  

The Bottom Line

Tom Allen, by all accounts, is a great person and very easy to root for.  He will likely endear himself to Nittany Nation quickly and be a solid addition to the coaching staff.  Early on, his biggest issue was the transition from Head Coach to Defensive Coordinator.  He even has blown the whistle a few times at practice.  Both Allen and Franklin have laughed about it and will be very happy if that is the biggest problem during the transition.

The defense’s ultimate results will be a good barometer of the team’s success.  Drew Allar, Andy Kotelnicki, and the offense hold the other key.  Allen is excited about the challenge of leading the Penn State defense and is diving in the deep end so far.  Nittany Lions fans will be watching, and the faster the comparisons to Diaz and last year’s defense stop, the better that means the defense is doing.


Tom Allen Penn State Defense
Photo courtesy: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports


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