With camp starting Friday, we started a series earlier in the week detailing the Nittany Lions’ five biggest question marks heading into the 2018 season.
We already addressed whether Miles Sanders can successfully replace Saquon Barkley and what’s going on at linebacker. So we’re on Question No. 3:
What will defensive tackle look like this year?
If there are any big concerns about this team, they start with linebacker and end with defensive tackle.
With three key DTs moving on after last season — including starters Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran, along with contributor Tyrell Chavis — the Nittany Lions have to get their replacements up to speed quickly.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry would ideally like to have a group of at least five tackles he can rotate, so this question doesn’t just stop at the starters. As a result, we’ll take a closer look at those starters, along with the backups and the future.
There aren’t many question marks about who the two starters will be: Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor.
Givens played defensive end last season, but he played the 2016 season at tackle — so the move back shouldn’t be overly difficult. In fact, one of Givens’ strengths is his versatility — he can play end, nose tackle or 3-technique — and he’s drawn numerous comparisons to Anthony Zettel.
He’s one of the popular picks to be the Nittany Lions’ defensive breakout. And that’s not a stretch, considering the 6-foot-1, 283-pound redshirt junior is in Year 4 with the program — which happens to be the same year Zettel broke out. He boasts a fast-twitch, which is complemented by the type of strength that allows him to squat 515 pounds.
Windsor is a less-proven commodity, but he’s the most-experienced option they have.
He has played in 27 career games, and he’s a space-eater at 304 pounds. He’s technically the biggest starting DT that Penn State has had since 323-pound Austin Johnson in 2015.
Windsor, also a redshirt junior, can move well for a nose tackle. He’s arguably one of the most underrated players on the defense.
Here’s where the question marks really come in — and where James Franklin’s concern really lies.
Franklin has repeatedly acknowledged the depth issues here, saying that any excitement with the younger players right now is more based on potential. And fall camp will have to sort out who’s ready to tap into that.
The reason? Besides Givens and Windsor, the most-experienced DT is redshirt sophomore Ellison Jordan — who played in seven games last season, racked up nine tackles and missed the spring due to a knee injury against Maryland. If he were healthy and the season started tomorrow, he’d back up Givens at the 3-technique. But his condition is unknown at this point.
At nose tackle, fellow redshirt sophomore Antonio Shelton is in line to be the top backup after a strong offseason. He saw limited reps last season, really only in garbage time, but he’s earned a lot of praise for his improvement and weighs in at a solid 308 pounds. Defensive end Ryan Buchholz could also move inside in certain situations.
Other players in the mix include redshirt freshmen Damion Barber and Fred Hansard. But a lot of eyes should be on true freshmen P.J. Mustipher and Judge Culpepper, at least one of whom will likely earn the “green” light to play and not redshirt early on.
What is a question mark this season should be a position of strength next season.
The main reason that defensive tackle is a focus this offseason isn’t a question of talent, it’s a question of experience. And all 10 defensive tackles on the roster will have eligibility next season, while eight of those will have eligibility again the season after that.
This is a transition year for defensive tackle. Sure, there will be growing pains this season — but this position isn’t necessarily a weakness in 2018. It’s a question mark not unlike quarterback was in 2016 and, hopefully, fall camp will help sort out where potential ends and production begins.