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NCAA Football: Penn State at Minnesota

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State is projected to return just five starters on the defensive side of the ball, but as you will see, there are a lot of familiar faces back for the Nittany Lions. Sure, there are questions that will have to be answered, but this is a defensive unit with legitimate championship potential.

DEFENSIVE ENDS

Strongside: Jayson Oweh (RS SO), Shane Simmons (RS SR), Nick Tarburton (RS SO)
Weakside: *Shaka Toney (RS SR), Adisa Isaac (SO), Daniel Joseph (RS SR)

So one of the big reasons for the delay of this article was because we are waiting on the word from Shaka Toney. After the Cotton Bowl, it was originally reported by Ben Jones of StateCollege.com that Toney said he would be back in Happy Valley for his redshirt senior year — but that report was then scrapped when it came out that Toney was only saying he’d like to come back for his final season.

So here today we sit, still waiting on Toney’s decision. The deadline for entry into the NFL Draft is on January 20, so we will know officially soon. But as far this article, we will assume that Toney is coming back. And with that being the case, it’s a big coup for the defensive ends. As you can see, the rest of the group is rather inexperienced so getting back a 5th year player like Toney is massive. He had 6.5 sacks and 8 TFLs this past season, but perhaps just as important will be Toney’s leadership in the defensive line room. James Franklin and Sean Spencer have said in the past about how much teammates respect Toney, so having his leadership presence alone is a big boost.

Who will be starting opposite Toney could be any of Jayson Oweh, Adisa Isaac, Shane Simmons, or Daniel Joseph, but I lean toward the younger pairing of that group — and more specifically, Jayson Oweh.

I think most Penn State fans realize how much of an athletic freak Oweh is. At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Oweh has ridiculous testing numbers — 4.33 (hand-timed) forty, 36.5-inch vertical, and a 10-foot-7 broad jump. This past season, Oweh started putting it together on the field though, totaling 5 sacks in limited snaps.

The key word of that sentence? “Started” because Oweh is still not close to his potential. But the signs of progression between his freshman season and redshirt freshman season were there. If he can continue to progress this offseason, he has the makings of a very talented defensive end starter, and someone who could near double-digit sack totals in 2020.

Speaking of progression, watch out for Adisa Isaac this offseason. The rising true sophomore is going to be a good one in Happy Valley, it’s just a matter of when the breakthrough comes. Could it be this offseason? Perhaps. Isaac isn’t quite the athletic marvel that Oweh is, but all the pieces are there for him to be a big time Big Ten defensive end.

Rounding out the two-deep will be the redshirt seniors duo: Shane Simmons and Daniel Joseph. Simmons is strong against the run, but hasn’t produced the splash plays necessary to be a starter — in his last 14 games, he has just 2 TFLs and 0 sacks. Meanwhile, Joseph has actually shown some production when he’s gotten snaps — 2 TFLs and 1.5 sacks in just four games this past season — but the consistency just hasn’t been there. We’ll see if either can have Evan Schwan-esque redshirt senior seasons.

Also, let’s not forget Nick Tarburton. He pushed for playing time as a freshman before being redshirted, but unfortunately, he couldn’t build off that this past season as he dealt with injuries. He’s a big, talented dude who absolutely could jump into the two-deep.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

3-Tech: PJ Mustipher (JR), Damion Barber (RS JR), Hakeem Beamon (RS FR)
1-Tech: *Antonio Shelton (RS SR), Fred Hansard (RS JR), Judge Culpepper (RS SO)

Defensive tackle has been one of the spots where Penn State lacked behind the elite-of-elites of college football. While I think it’s fair to say they aren’t where they want to be yet, the talent level here has really improved. Of those six players above, four (Mustipher, Barber, Hansard, and Beamon) were four-star recruits, with Mustipher being of the Top 100 variety.

Let’s start with the starters. Shelton is the designated “returning starter” of the duo, but with Penn State relying heavily on a three-man rotation this past year, Mustipher was right there with Shelton when it came to snap counts. So both guys bring “starter-level” experience.

For being a late recruiting flip from Illinois, Shelton has certainly outplayed most expectations. He isn’t going to push for all-conference honors, but the dude is a solid 1-Tech that knows how to play the run. He has good size at 6-foot-2, 311 pounds, he’s strong as an ox, and he’s clearly a leader not just on the defensive line, but for the defense and the team as a whole. That’s valuable.

Next to him will be PJ Mustipher, who showed a nice progression from his freshman season, putting up 4.5 TFLs and a big forced fumble against Iowa. I think when you look at this defensive line, Mustipher is the guy who needs to — and in some sense, should be expected to — take that next step. He was solid as a sophomore and flashed at times. Next season, it will be about having more of those flash plays, and hopefully taking his game to an all-conference level.

The primary backup for both of them should be Fred Hansard, who like Mustipher, made really strong strides between the 2018 an 2019 season. If you remember, Hansard broke his foot during the 2018 season, but his play prior to that was not great. BScaff expounded on some of the issues — most notably, just how slow Hansard was off the snap of the ball.

Fortunately, 2019 was a different story for Hansard. He got off the ball way quicker, he looked way more comfortable, and he started making plays, totaling 4.5 TFLs in semi-limited action.

The issue with the Shelton-Mustipher pairing and Hansard being DT No. 3? You don’t get a whole lot of pass rush ability out of them. They combined for just 2.5 sacks in 2019, which is not great. That’s why it is imperative that this offseason is finally the offseason where things click for Damion Barber. A former defensive end, he’s a true get-after-the-quarterback 3-Tech, and as outlined above, that ability is sorely needed out of the defensive tackle rotation.

If not Barber, perhaps redshirt freshman Hakeem Beamon can step up? He’s listed at just 260 pounds right now though, so I’m not sure he’ll be physically ready for two-deep defensive tackle snaps yet.

Plenty of 1-Techs waiting in the wings, though. Judge Culpepper is solid. I think redshirt freshman D’Von Ellies could rise up this spring. Depth is really good here. Just a matter of a few guys taking that next step, and hopefully, finding a true 3-Tech.

LINEBACKER

Will: *Micah Parsons (JR), Jesse Luketa (JR), Curtis Jacobs (FR)
Mike: Ellis Brooks (RS JR), Jesse Lueta (JR), Tyler Elsdon (FR)
Sam: Brandon Smith (SO), Lance Dixon (RS FR), Charlie Katshir (RS SO)

Honestly, I could see linebacker playing out a bunch of different ways. I could see Luketa as the starter at the Mike or the Will. I could see Smith as the starter at the Sam or the Will. Heck, I could see Parsons as the starter at any of the three spots — though I think keeping him in the box would be best. Regardless, a lot of versatile pieces here so I’m sure the spring will be a time to experiment.

Let’s start with the definite: Micah Parsons. We don’t know what spot he’ll be manning, but he will absolutely be out there, and he will absolutely be playing at an All-American level. It’s crazy, because he put up 109 tackles, 14 TFLs, and 5 sacks this year, and things didn’t even really click for him until the Michigan-Michigan State-Minnesota span. I jokingly told my friends I think he’ll have 120 tackles, 20 TFLs, and 10 sacks next year, but like — it’s actually not that unrealistic. Which is crazy to say! I know! But that’s how good Micah Parsons is! Fun times for Linebacker U.

Who will be the starters along with Parsons remains to be seen. Like I said above, I could see any of Luketa, Brooks, and Smith as the starters, but I lean toward the latter two right now. Brooks quietly had a nice season backing up Jan Johnson, finishing with 39 tackles and 4 TFLs. He won’t blow you away with athleticism, but as a redshirt junior that has seen legitimate playing time since his redshirt frosh season, he knows what he’s doing out there, which is key for the Mike linebacker.

At the Sam, I have Brandon Smith. He’s long, he’s lanky, and he has the tools to play in space — really, it’s exactly what Brent Pry wants out of his Sam linebacker. While Smith was still too green this season to make much of a impact — he finished with just 14 tackles and 2 TFLs — there’s a reason he wasn’t redshirted: the dude is stupid talented. This will be his second spring practice with the program since he enrolled early last year, and I fully expect to hear a lot of Smith buzz in March and April. He has all-conference potential.

As for Luketa, like I said, I wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up a starter. To be honest, he might be deserving of it. But regardless of if he is a starter or not, he’ll see his fair share of playing time as he should be the backup linebacker for both box spots.

Beyond Luketa, the depth here is good. Lance Dixon is uber-talented and I believe is the fastest linebacker on the roster. He was a bit too undersized this past season (listed at 213 pounds) so an offseason with Dwight Galt will do him good. Charlie Katshir is solid and should be a prime special teamer again. True freshman Curtis Jacobs is going to be too good to keep off the field — would expect a Brandon Smith-esque role from him in 2020.

SAFETY

FS: Jaquan Brisker (SR), Jonathan Sutherland (RS JR), CJ Holmes (RS JR)
SS: *Lamont Wade (SR), Ji’Ayir Brown (JR), Tyler Rudolph (RS FR)

If Shaka Toney does indeed return for his fifth year, then safety is my biggest concern defensively. I don’t think they were quite as bad as some (CC: Marty Leap) say, but the struggles against the pass in 2019 seemed to fall more on the safeties than the corners.

The positives: Penn State will (more than likely) have an experienced senior duo in the backend. Wade made good strides between his sophomore and junior season, and now with another full spring at safety, those good strides should continue. On the opposite side of him should be fellow former-WPIAL standout Jaquan Brisker, who is heading into his first full offseason with the program.

Here’s the thing with the safeties — they need to do a better job of being the safety valve of the defense. Like the idea behind the safeties is they are the last line of defense for the defense, but yet so often in 2019, you saw them late to help a corner. Yes, Wade, Brisker, and the now departed Taylor were pretty dang good in run coverage, but the help over the top has to improve.

Behind Wade and Brisker, there are some intriguing names. Ji’Ayir Brown is a talented grad transfer from Lackawanna CC who has the makings of the centerfield type safety that Penn State needs — Brown was at one time thought of as a potential cornerback — but, unfortunately, Brown won’t be enrolling until the summer. I’m sure he’ll break into the rotation, but it’s a tough ask for someone to enroll in June and to be ready to start by September.

Speaking of centerfield type safeties, Tyler Rudolph is absolutely a name to keep an eye on. The uber-talented second-year player is coming off a redshirt season, and as an early enrollee last year, is heading into his second offseason with the program. He’s a guy I’m excited to hear about this spring because the combination of size (6-foot-0, 204 pounds) and athleticism is tantalizing.

CORNERBACK

CB: Keaton Ellis (SO), Donovan Johnson (RS JR), Trent Gordon (RS SO)
CB: *Tariq Castro-Fields (SR), Marquis Wilson (SO), Joey Porter Jr. (RS FR)

Penn State’s cornerback room received a big boost when senior Tariq Castro-Fields announced that he would be back for his senior season in Happy Valley. As was discussed in his coming back article , TCF is clearly a good cornerback, but he hasn’t made the “splash” plays that all-conference caliber cornerbacks make. If he can improve his ball skills and pick off a few more passes as a senior, he’ll squarely find himself for All-B1G contention.

Who plays opposite TCF remains to be seen, but it’s likely a three-man battle between Keaton Ellis, Marquis Wilson, and Donovan Johnson. Ellis has the best size, Wilson has the best ball skills, while Johnson is the quickest of the group. I think all four see quite a bit of time — especially Johnson as the nickel corner in the slot — but I’ll go with Ellis as the “starter.”

If Penn State is lining up TCF and Ellis at cornerback, it has really good size and length outside: the two combine to be 5-foot-11.5, 193.5 pounds — and that’s before Ellis gets another offseason with Dwight Galt. Would not be surprised to see him closer to the 200-pound mark once September arrives.

While I predict Ellis as the starter, let me make something clear: I am a Marquis Wilson guy. The ball skills he displayed in high school were so truly bizarre, and in limited snaps this past season, he showed that those skills are translating to the next level. There will be a play or two were he’s going to get beat off the line of scrimmage (he needs to get much stronger), but the swagger, energy, and confidence he plays with is so friggin’ cool. His potential is absurd.

As for Donovan Johnson, like I said, I’d expect for him to man the nickel cornerback role. He lacks ideal size (5-foot-9) to play full-time on the outside, but his quickness, speed, and oily hips (shoutout Mayock) make him perfect to play in the slot. We’ll see if he can bounce back after an injury-shortened two-game season in 2019.

Beyond those top four, Penn State will have Trent Gordon and Joey Porter Jr. rounding out the depth chart — which is a pretty good No. 5 and No. 6. Gordon has progressed nicely during his first two years on campus, while Joey Porter Jr. brings elite length at 6-foot-2 with go-go gadget arms.

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