Penn State Football

Despite question marks, Penn State’s defensive tackles ready to reload in 2018

Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton talks opinions and more

Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton talks opinions about the upcoming season and his focus on camp during media day at Beaver Stadium.
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Penn State defensive tackle Antonio Shelton talks opinions about the upcoming season and his focus on camp during media day at Beaver Stadium.

Antonio Shelton understands everyone is allowed their own opinions. But that doesn’t mean the Penn State defensive tackle has to agree with them.

That’s especially true when it comes to those who doubt him and his fellow interior defensive linemen.

“I’m a huge LeBron James fan. People say he’s not better than (Michael) Jordan. I happen to disagree,” Shelton said with a smile at Penn State’s media day, when asked if his unit had something to prove in 2018. “A lot of people say that we’re inexperienced, we’re too young, there’s a problem, we’re not going to be able to produce. That’s fine. You can do that. You can think that. There are some people who think we’ll be fine. Personally, I think we’ll be fine.”

Yes, head coach James Franklin labeled defensive tackle as one of three question marks, along with kicker and linebacker, entering the new season.

Yes, the group lost seniors Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran and Tyrell Chavis — who accounted for 32 tackles for loss and 47 starts over the last four years.

Yes, it’s a tall task replacing three players who are currently in NFL training camps.

Shelton isn’t alone, though, in thinking the defensive tackles will be A-OK not only when the season kicks off on Sept. 1, but also when Big Ten teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin come to Beaver Stadium.

Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor, both redshirt juniors, are the clear front-runners to lock down first-team roles. Windsor led the Big Ten with three fumble recoveries last year, while Givens started four times. Most of those first-team looks for Givens came at defensive end against power-running squads like Michigan State, but it’s starting experience nonetheless.

If Givens continues to be flexible and move out to the edge — which defensive line coach Sean Spencer said is still possible — Shelton could fill the “third-starter” interior role that Chavis carved out for himself.

Shelton and redshirt freshman Fred Hansard — a top-300 recruit in 2017 — “had really good springs,” according to Spencer. The coach also reminded reporters that Ellison Jordan is back. The redshirt sophomore played in seven games last year, including the Nittany Lions’ regular-season finale against Maryland, but missed the Fiesta Bowl with a reported broken kneecap.

In addition, Penn State welcomes three true freshmen to the fold: PJ Mustipher, Judge Culpepper and Aeneas Hawkins. Mustipher — the No. 5 defensive tackle in the 2018 class, per 247 Sports — is already showing flashes in camp, with veteran defensive end Shareef Miller saying, “He shocked me for real.” Spencer said all three “are as advertised.”

It may not be Cothren, Cothran and Chavis. But with Givens, Windsor, Shelton, Hansard, Jordan and the three freshmen, the Nittany Lions could have one of the deepest defensive tackle groups in the Big Ten.

“I really like the defensive tackles this upcoming season,” Miller said. “Just the way that they were working this offseason and how they used what people were saying in the media, about Parker and Curtis leaving, about how we’d be weak in the middle. A lot of those guys are working hard and trying to be an impact on the team this year.”

Added Spencer: “Every year I’ve been here, there’s been some type of question mark or two that either we as coaches have or someone has. Teaching the kids to reload and making sure that everyone’s prepared is why you have great confidence going into a season. We are tremendously young, and we are tremendously talented. That’s my job and Coach (Brent) Pry’s job and Coach Franklin’s job to make sure we get these guys ready and put them in the best situation possible.”