In a four-day span last week, Penn State lost a pair of defensive ends with 13 starts, 19.5 tackles for loss and 53 appearances combined. But the retirements of Ryan Buchholz and Torrence Brown didn’t come as a surprise to the Nittany Lion coaching staff. They knew for a while and still expressed confidence in the defensive ends heading into fall camp.
With the season less than two weeks away, that trust remains — and clarity at the starting spots has come into sight.
Redshirt junior Shareef Miller and sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos look like Penn State’s Week 1 starters at defensive end, assistant coach Sean Spencer said Tuesday. Miller, who led the Nittany Lions with five sacks in 2017, was a sure-fire first-teamer. Meanwhile, Gross-Matos — one of three true freshmen to see the field in last year — was in a “heated battle” with Shane Simmons, who was seen at Saturday’s photo day wearing a walking boot.
“(Miller and Gross-Matos) have come out with the first group,” Spencer said. “Shareef is going into his third year here. He started last year and played a lot his redshirt freshman year. ... (Gross-Matos) just plays the game so fast. He has no regard for his body. He throws his body around like a wrecking crew. It was good to get him that experience (as a freshman), and we’re excited about him moving forward.”
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Spencer still plans on rotating his defensive ends frequently, especially Buchholz and Brown serving as his assistants on the sidelines, not sacking the quarterback.
When asked about the health of Simmons — a redshirt sophomore and former top-50 recruit — Spencer said with a laugh, “I’m going to put my hands together and rub them like Mr. Miyagi, and he’ll be just fine.” He went into more detail about the defensive end options currently practicing.
Here’s what Spencer had to say about the potential contributors behind Miller and Gross-Matos.
Shaka Toney, redshirt sophomore
“Shaka’s gained about 10 pounds of muscle mass, so he’s closer to 240. There were times last year where he was playing at about 227, 228. He’s 238 or 240, and he’s held it. He didn’t just gain the weight this summer. He’s held that.
“We all know he’s a great pass-rusher, so our biggest question for him coming into the season is, can you play on every down? And by putting on that weight, he’s starting to show us that he can play every down. And we’ll need that not having Buch and Torrence. We’ll need him to do that.”
Daniel Joseph, redshirt sophomore
“He’s just a warrior. He’s a guy I can get 10 straight reps in practice, and he just goes. He won’t stop. He’s really refined his technique. He has really long arms; like 35- or 36-inch arms. He can literally reach out like five yards and touch somebody, so that’s kind of cool to have that. He’s utilizing the tools he has.”
Jayson Oweh, true freshman
“He’s a physical specimen, a freak. He runs a sub-4.4 (40-yard dash), jumps out the gym and looks the way you want him to look. He’s still figuring this thing out. He’s new to football, only playing for three years. He’s figuring it out. But it’s great to have guys like Torrence and Buch who will be on the sideline when he comes off the field. ... He can literally run past people standing up, break down and make a play. He’s that fast.”
Nick Tarburton, true freshman
“Getting here in January, he had a boost being here for the spring. He got acclimated with the system and everything. He looks good, and we love his aggressiveness. One of the reasons why we moved him from linebacker to d-end was he was just so aggressive. He has a nose for the football. Some guys just have that natural knack.”