UNIVERSITY PARK — Anyone who watched the fourth quarter of Penn State’s 33-28, late-October victory over Indiana last season saw the unbridled athleticism and sky-high potential of 6-3, 243-pound defensive end Shaka Toney.
Toney was a one-man wrecking crew against the Hoosiers, registering four sacks in the fourth quarter alone and helping the Nittany Lions preserve a tenuous lead late in the game.
Toney finished his sophomore season with five sacks — the other came against Pitt on Sept. 8 — but was relegated to a pass-rush specialist role behind All-Big Ten end Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller, now with the Philadelphia Eagles.
With Miller’s departure to the NFL and this season’s opponents surely looking for ways to double- and triple-team Gross-Matos, Penn State head coach James Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry both mentioned Toney as a candidate to become an every-down player.
“On defense, we’ve got to minimize some of the explosive plays and obviously be more consistent against the run. That’s going to be a big focus for us this year,” Franklin said of his team’s defense. “One of the guys not getting talked enough about is Shaka Toney, a guy within our program, has got so much respect, is so explosive. We think he’s going to have a huge year for us.”
Toney, a redshirt junior this season, put on 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason and has impressed the coaches with how he has begun to fine-tune his body and his burst.
Still, at 243 pounds — in most cases 50 or more pounds lighter than the offensive lineman he will be going up against — Toney is considered undersized.
Despite what looks to be a size disadvantage on paper, the deficit can be neutralized by Toney’s speed and agility, assets which his defensive coordinator will be tasked with employing on the field this year.
“Everybody wants to talk about Shaka as a specific-down guy. I don’t see that anymore,” Pry said. “He’s always understood leverage very well, and now that he’s put on some weight and some strength and has a little more experience on early downs, I think he’s got a chance to be a complete end this year, absolutely. He’s got one of the strongest voices in our locker room. The guys really respect Shaka. He’s a very intelligent young man, and I think he’s setting himself up for a very good year.”
Toney has been trending upward since he arrived in Happy Valley from Imhotep Charter School in Philadelphia where he led the Panthers to four-straight Philadelphia Public League Championships and was a huge reason why the Panthers went undefeated in 2015 and captured Philadelphia’s first PIAA football title in any classification.
In 2017, Toney made the most of his limited opportunities on the field. While he was credited with just 20 total tackles for the year, Toney registered 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Last season, Toney appeared in all 13 of the Nittany Lions’ games and upped his totals in nearly every statistical category. Toney recorded the aforementioned five sacks and also notched 7.5 tackles for loss, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble.
Toney’s is a progression which Franklin, Pry and the rest of the Penn State faithful hope will continue unabated throughout the season.
Athletic gifts aside, Toney has also become a team leader and Franklin will lean heavily on him to relay the coaching staff’s message.
“Shaka Toney has got a strong voice with our team. He’s very well respected, not only for what he does on the field,” Franklin said “Really, Shaka, from what our players say, Shaka is one of the great friends and teammates on the team for everybody. He’s the guy that they all seem to go to with issues or concerns or things or advice. He’s obviously got a strong voice.”