Nice as Florida is at the end of December, when the weather in Happy Valley is turning evil and the comfort of a beach trumps a brisk walk across a college campus, Antonio Shelton doesn’t have many happy memories of Penn State’s trip to the Citrus Bowl less than four months ago.
Mistakes. Missed opportunities. Another loss in a bowl game. Those kinds of things, he insists, spoil even the sunshine.
“We’re tired of letting things slip through our fingers,” Shelton said.
Shelton officially can do something about it now, he figures. During Saturday’s Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium, the 6-foot-2, 308-pound junior will look to solidify himself as the next in line at a defensive tackle position that has produced a series of stars and will be replacing one this fall.
Junior Kevin Givens decided to enter the NFL Draft shortly after that 27-24 loss to Kentucky in Orlando on New Year’s Day, creating an opportunity for Shelton and a group of young defensive linemen who have long been awaiting their shot to take the program to another level.
With Givens and defensive end Shareef Miller leaving school early for the NFL, Shelton and a other members of the 2016 recruiting class — defensive ends Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons and Daniel Joseph — are looking to continue defensive line coach Sean Spencer’s mantra.
“Any time guys leave and go to the NFL, coach Spencer’s whole thing is we reload, we don’t rebuild,” Shelton said. “Our whole thought process is, whoever can step up and fill the role, that’s who’s going to do it. But my coaches trust me enough to throw me in the mix. I’m just excited to show I’ve improved, really.”
Shelton served as the top backup to Givens and fellow starter Robert Windsor in the middle of Penn State’s defensive line in 2018, recording 14 tackles.
The Nittany Lions led the nation in sacks per game for defensive linemen, even though it struggled to stop the run. In the Citrus Bowl, Kentucky was able to grind out the clock behind running back Benny Snell Jr., a disturbing continuation of a trend Shelton knows has to change.
“We’ve just realized that we’re just a lot better than we put on film and what we do,” Shelton said. “Our biggest thing in the winter was that it’s extremely easy to talk about [things]. Coach [James] Franklin is always talking about habits, and it’s very easy to say you want to go to the national championship. ... So, it’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to have championship habits.
“After last season, we really bought into that, just living as a champion before you’re a champion.”
Shelton said he has learned the value of consistency this spring, something he’ll need to display if he’s to take over for Givens.
He also said it’s important for he and his fellow 2016 defensive line recruits to use the Blue-White Game as a springboard not just toward the 2019 season, but an ownership role of a position they’ve been asked to contribute to only sparingly in the past.
“I definitely think a lot of positive things are going to come out of that,” Shelton said. “For a lot of us, it has been a long time coming. I think our biggest thing is, we want to uphold the standard. There can’t be a fall off, and if there is a fall off, that’s mainly on us, because we’re going to be the older guys in the room.”