STATE COLLEGE — It’ll likely go down as the most memorable play of his collegiate career, but Grant Haley has no desire to rewatch his game-sealing touchdown against Ohio State from a year ago.
Although Haley’s fourth-quarter, 60-yard return of a blocked field goal sparked Penn State’s national rise, the soft-spoken Atlanta native believes he’s earned a reputation as more than “that Ohio State kid” as he’s been called by fans he runs into.
Coach James Franklin has seen him make plenty of plays since, and his characterization of Haley is more fitting.
“He’s Mr. Dependable,” Franklin said. “You know what you’re getting with Grant every day. You know what you’re getting with Grant every play.”
Penn State players and coaches have known for a long time what to expect of Haley.
The three-year starter, who also played 13 games as a true freshman, has emerged as one of the most effective cover cornerbacks in the country. His shutdown abilities have fueled Penn State’s aggressive secondary heading into a showdown with No. 6 Ohio State’s 12th-ranked passing offense and rejuvenated quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Barrett’s options will include 6-plus-footers K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell. But the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Haley has dominated bigger receivers all season.
He’s matched up against No. 1s from Iowa, Indiana, Northwestern and Michigan, and none of them — including Indiana’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound Simmie Cobbs — has gotten consistent separation. Quarterbacks have completed just three throws for first downs against him and have gained just 31 combined yards on seven other completions to Haley-covered receivers.
When he has been targeted, Haley makes the opposition pay. He has two interceptions — six in his career — and six passes broken up this season. He’s also been active as a blitzer with a sack and quarterback hurry.
“He pays attention to the details,” backup corner Amani Oruwariye said. “He watches a lot of film, like all of us. But yeah, he’s just very particular in his game, and he works on his craft all the time, and he’s someone that the younger guys and even me myself look up to as far as a work ethic and technique and stuff like that. But he’s really taken his game to the next level.”
He’s been a standout since his freshman year. After running one of the fastest 40-yard-dash times on the team in 2014, Haley seized the primary kickoff return job, where he racked up 659 yards, the third most in program history.
Haley’s influence has permeated the secondary. Penn State’s ninth-rated overall defense is allowing just 167 passing yards per game and hasn’t surrendered a passing touchdown in 84 attempts.
The success comes in spite of losing John Reid for the season with a knee injury in spring practice. Haley’s ability to switch spots — he plays field, boundary and nickel corner depending on the situation — has made Reid’s absence more manageable.
“I think people are seeing that and respecting us more,” Haley said. “And I think we don’t let that get to our head and we just keep our head down and do the dirty work that coach reiterates every single week to us.”
They’ll be plenty of dirty work in Columbus. Barrett has thrown 24 touchdowns compared to 17 at this point last season, and he hasn’t been intercepted in 150 attempts.
“I see J.T. playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Franklin said. “And he’s obviously surrounded by a lot of talent and he’s doing a great job of distributing the ball to that talent.”
Penn State’s secondary isn’t a one-man show, but Haley’s had a lot to do with its growth, and he’s encouraged fellow veterans Christian Campbell, Marcus Allen and Troy Apke with his play.
His teammates have noted that Haley prefers to let his play speak for him. He has to, because Haley doesn’t say a whole lot.
“Grant has probably said 32 words,” Franklin said.
He’s used a lot of them to downplay that big moment from last season.
“We just needed that one game where we were able to go against a top team and come out victorious,” Haley said. “We just kept believing in each other more and more and ... it just really gave us that confidence and leadership and maturity that we have today.”