They really are more than just fond memories.
For Eddie Faulkner IV, a childhood spent around football has provided the Slippery Rock junior defensive back with a pragmatic approach to his own burgeoning adulthood in the game he learned to love while trailing in the footsteps of his father.
Now in his fifth season as the Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach, Eddie Faulkner III undoubtedly provided his son with a unique education in the game over the past two decades, which saw him serve in assistant coaching positions at NCAA institutions across the country — most recently at North Carolina State from 2013 until 2018.
“Just growing up around football, especially to the extent that I did, I’ve seen it just work its magic or kind of manifest itself in how I understand football,” said Faulkner IV, who mostly grew up in Raleigh, N.C., before playing his senior season at Shady Side Academy in 2019. “I feel like I kind of see it in a different way than maybe other people that haven’t had the same opportunity as me.
“Just having my dad understand football and being able to give me tips and maybe critique certain things that I’m doing, just having that extra football knowledge, is especially helpful.”
The younger Faulkner has made the most of his opportunity with undefeated Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division champion Slippery Rock, the fourth-ranked NCAA Division II team in the country.
The 5-foot-8, 190-pound defensive back has been a menace all over the field for the Rock defense, notching a team-best four sacks with four interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also has 38 tackles and four quarterback hits.
Faulkner IV will look to build upon that success Saturday when Slippery Rock (10-0, 7-0) travels to face PSAC East Division champion Kutztown (8-2, 7-0) at noon in the conference championship game.
With all of his experience in tow, Faulkner said he is looking forward to the opportunity to help his team win a conference title before embarking on an NCAA Division II playoff run at a national championship.
“It’s seeing how successful teams are, not just how they’re playing, and their technique and all their talent,” he said of his personal perspective on football. “It’s things off the field that they do. I used to be at the facilities — maybe watching lifts or practice or maybe sat in a couple meetings — that I’ve seen and I’ve learned things and picked up things of how successful teams operate and how it’s supposed to work.”
Shawn Lutz — now in his 28th season at Slippery Rock and his eighth as head coach — said he is grateful to have a player like Faulkner on his team.
“I definitely think he got under recruited because he was in North Carolina, and then going into his senior year he goes to Shady Side,” Lutz said. “That’s a little bit tough right there, but we’re just glad that we got him here. He comes from a coaching family. He’s always been smart. He’s always been a leader on our football team, very instinctive.
“Really, I think the growth has been this year,” he added. “He’s just taken off.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of his first season at Slippery Rock in 2020, Faulkner appeared in 11 games as a freshman in 2021, making 10 tackles. He then appeared in 13 games, making eight starts, as a sophomore in 2022, racking up 34 tackles, two for a loss, with one interception and one sack.
“He was really good for us last year, but I think what he’s bringing to the table right now is the closer to the football he is the better we are, the more production he’s getting,” Lutz said. “He plays our nickel, which he’s covering always the best shifty slot guy, which is hard to do. Then when we get to the third-down package, we’re actually having him pass rush. You’re going to see him up on the line of scrimmage, and he’s beating these guys with his athleticism.”
For Lutz, Faulkner’s ability to get the better of players much larger than him and make disruptive plays is special.
“He’s like a hybrid,” Lutz said. “He reminds me of [Steelers Hall of Fame safety] Troy Polamalu, I’m just saying he does everything. What I’m really impressed with, is on third down, he’s probably our best pass rusher, and he’s only a 185-, 200-pound guy.”
Lutz said Faulkner has also benefited from the tutelage of first-year Slippery Rock defensive backs coach Cedric Whitaker, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant special teams and defensive backs coach with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“I think the biggest thing is we just allow him to play,” Lutz said. “He’s a very, very confident guy, very analytical, just go out and play. I think he is just doing a good job of that.”
It’s the type of style of play that also led Lutz to compare Faulkner’s game to New Orleans Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu, known throughout his collegiate and NFL career as the “Honey Badger.”
“My dad, he always says I play like the Honey Badger,” Faulkner said. “He’s always said that I can be like that type of guy, he saw it in my game before. I think when it comes to making these big splash plays … it’s not just on Saturday that all of the sudden I make these plays, interceptions, sacks, fumbles, whatever the case may be. It’s in the meeting room, in practice throughout the week. I think our culture, we just demand excellence on the field and off the field.”
Slippery Rock’s culture will be on full display Saturday.
The PSAC championship game will feature a matchup of strengths. The Rock’s conference-best offense, which is averaging 46 points per game, will face Kutztown’s PSAC tops defense that is conceding just 14.7 points per game.
Slippery Rock quarterback Brayden Long is the PSAC’s top passer. He has thrown for 2,879 yards, with a 69.8 completion percentage, and 32 touchdowns with just two interceptions. The Rock also boasts the conference’s top receiver in Kyle Sheets, who has 997 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Golden Bears feature a tandem of defensive linemen in Nigel Wilson and Brayden Pohlman, who have five sacks each, while linebacker Tyler Whary has 4½.
Lutz said his team is ready for the chance to capture a PSAC title.
“This is probably the closest group I’ve been around since I’ve been a head coach here,” Lutz said. “It’s hard to explain, but these guys really care about one another. They don’t care about who gets the credit. They just want to win the game and continue to get better.”
And that’s what Faulkner intends to do as the Rock’s postseason run unfolds.
“Our coaches and just all the leadership on this team have always stressed that no matter who we play it’s not about who we’re playing, who they are, what they do,” he said. “It’s about our process — how we operate, how we’re going to play — because like I’ve been saying, it’s not about what we do Saturday it’s about what we do throughout the week.
“I think I’ve heard a couple times that Kutztown has a good defense,” he added. “I don’t think we’re going into it like, ‘We need to prove ourselves against this Kutztown defense to show that we’re the better defense.’ We just need to prove to ourselves that we are who we say we are.”