Ryan Buchholz, coming off an injury-plagued yet promising 2017 campaign, was expected to be a legitimate breakout candidate for Penn State this season. Instead, the defensive end will watch from the sidelines, leaving the Nittany Lions looking for a suitable replacement.
Thankfully for James Franklin and his coaching staff, they have a few options.
“Obviously we’d love to have (Buchholz),” Franklin said following Wednesday’s practice, hours after the defensive end announced his retirement from football. “He’s been a very productive player and an unbelievable teammate. But it’s not like this just came out of nowhere. It’s not like it was a shock for us. We knew it was a challenge for the last couple of years.
“I still feel good about (our defensive ends).”
And he has reason to be confident. Even after losing Buchholz — who started six games last season — the Nittany Lions boast five starter-quality pass-rushers: Shareef Miller, Yetur Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons and Daniel Joseph.
Miller, a redshirt junior who has barely scratched his NFL potential, is the unequivocal leader of the group. The Ted Hendricks Award candidate and 12-game starter recorded 11 tackles for loss in 2017, which ranked fifth among Big Ten East defensive ends behind Michigan’s Chase Winovich, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard and Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes.
Miller — who could be in for a “breakout year,” according to defensive line coach Sean Spencer — was supposed to start alongside Buchholz. He called his teammate’s retirement a “sad situation,” but vowed that there are alternatives to “fill the void.”
“Losing a player like that with a lot of experience and who played really good football for us is kind of tough,” Miller said. “But we’ve got a lot of guys here who are ready to step up.”
Gross-Matos, a sophomore who was one of three true freshmen to earn playing time last season, is a name on everyone’s lips. Spencer raved about the former blue-chip recruit at media day on Aug. 4, Miller called the 6-foot-5, 262-pounder a “freak,” and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said simply, “Yetur is a man.”
Gross-Matos, who fielded offers from 20 programs, including Alabama and Clemson, as a high school prospect, played 26.1 percent of regular-season snaps in 2017, third-most among returning pass-rushers, according to 247 Sports.
And judging by what he’s done in fall camp so far, Gross-Matos might be the guy who lines up opposite Miller on Sept. 1.
“I know he’s just a sophomore,” Limegrover said smiling, “but he goes out there and he plays the way I think the really, really high-quality defensive ends in this conference play.”
Added Miller: “He can do everything.”
Penn State’s three other options shouldn’t be forgotten, either.
Toney, a redshirt sophomore, was second only to Miller in sacks last season with four and added weight this offseason to be more than just a situational pass-rusher. Simmons — a former top-50 recruit — knows the playbook in and out and now “can play fast,” Miller said. Joseph, meanwhile, is healthy, and as Limegrover said, “All of a sudden, your eyes pop out of your head watching him rush the passer.”
The loss of Buchholz certainly hurts. But two weeks ago, Toney made the claim that Penn State features the best defensive end group in the Big Ten — and Limegrover still believes in that statement.
“You know, those D-ends, they just come in waves. They really do,” the offensive line coach said. “I may get blown up for this, but I feel like in our conference, we’ve got the best D-ends.... I hate playing against them, but I love having them wearing the same jerseys on Saturday.”