Penn State Football

Breaking down Penn State’s defensive depth chart, position battles

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons will see the field in 2018. But how much?
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons will see the field in 2018. But how much? adrey@centredaily.com

Penn State released its Week 1 depth chart Tuesday afternoon, and after already looking at the offensive side of the ball, it’s time to examine Brent Pry’s defense.

Here is a breakdown of the Nittany Lions’ defensive depth chart — analyzing everything from the middle linebacker situation to Micah Parsons’ future role.

Defensive end

1. Shareef Miller; 2. Daniel Joseph; 3. Nick Tarburton

1. Yetur Gross-Matos; 2. Shaka Toney; 3. Jayson Oweh

Breakdown: There was no doubt that Miller would commandeer a first-team role. The redshirt junior led the Nittany Lions with five sacks in 2017 and has set his sights on Carl Nassib’s single-season program record of 15.5 quarterback takedowns. His teammates wouldn’t be shocked if he got there, either. “I don’t think there is a ceiling,” defensive tackle Robert Windsor said. “I honestly believe that.”

Opposite Miller is sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos. One of three true freshmen to play last year, the former four-star prospect showed flashes of overpowering athleticism. That experience carried Gross-Matos through August and has him poised for a breakout campaign. “He’s been dominant all camp,” offensive tackle Will Fries said. “He’s a tall, long, strong, quick player. He gives you a variety of moves that’s difficult to deal with at offensive tackle. He’s been really impressive.”

There is plenty of competition to keep Miller and Gross-Matos honest, too. Shaka Toney’s added weight makes him more than just a situational pass-rusher, Shane Simmons got dinged up a bit during camp but should be back in the near future, Daniel Joseph’s motor puts him as Miller’s backup for now, and true freshmen Nick Tarburton and Jayson Oweh, especially the latter, could make an impact if given the green light.

Defensive tackle

1. Kevin Givens; 2. Fred Hansard; 3. Ellison Jordan; 4. Damion Barber

1. Robert Windsor; 2. Antonio Shelton; 3. PJ Mustipher

Breakdown: The starters here should come as no surprise. Givens, who had three sacks in 2017, is a “grown man” now, according to James Franklin. “When we were recruiting him, he was, I think, a 6-foot-1, 237-pound or 245-pound linebacker and running back,” the head coach said. “To see where he is now, I’m proud of Kevin. He’s still got growth to make in a lot of different areas, but he is headed in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, Windsor waited his turn until Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren moved on. “It was my role to take the starting spot. I knew what I had to do, and I got it done,” said Windsor, who led the Big Ten with three fumble recoveries last year. “I know my assignments are sound. And I can perform.”

Shelton, a redshirt sophomore, has been around long enough to inherit the “third starter” role left by Tyrell Chavis. Hansard, Jordan, Barber and Mustipher are all former four-star recruits. Mustipher, in particular, garnered praise from defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who compared the true freshman to a former second-round draft pick. “He does not look like a freshman,” Spencer said of Mustipher. “I liken him a lot to Austin Johnson.”

Middle linebacker

1. Jan Johnson; 2. Ellis Brooks; 3. Jesse Luketa

Breakdown: When Manny Bowen was reinstated on Aug. 4, the thought was that Penn State might have its MIKE linebacker. Maybe not Week 1, but later in the 2018 campaign, he would step into that starting role.

With Bowen leaving the program, that won’t be the case. Instead, it’s Johnson who gets the nod. The redshirt junior walk-on, whose scholarship situation has not changed, appeared in six games and made just 12 tackles last year. But Franklin said Johnson has “earned that starting position.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jan Johnson gives us the best opportunity to win on Saturday,” Franklin added.

Brooks, a redshirt freshman, has been lauded for his maturity, while Luketa was named one of seven true freshmen who won’t redshirt in 2018. Franklin expressed confidence in Johnson’s ability to hold down the MIKE position, but Brooks and Luketa will get playing time. “There’s going to be a strong push there,” Franklin said. “You’re going to see a lot of guys rotating.”

Outside linebacker

1. Koa Farmer; 2. Micah Parsons; 3. Jake Cooper

1. Cam Brown; 2. Jarvis Miller; 3. Dae’Lun Darien

Breakdown: Brown, in Franklin’s words, has “separated himself a little bit from the pack.” Brown — who made 10 tackles at Michigan as a true freshman and appeared in 12 games in 2017 — is ready for the opportunity to be a full-time starter.

At the other outside linebacker position, things seem a bit tighter. Farmer, a fifth-year senior, started all 13 games last season, so it makes sense to see him atop the depth chart yet again.

But Parsons — a heralded five-star recruit — is going to push for time, if not the starting gig. “He’s one of those freak athletes, just guys with natural-born talent,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “When you put that together with all the fundamentals and stuff like that, he’s just going to be a great player. ... He’s a guy that has a nose for the football.”

Cornerback

1. Amani Oruwariye; 2. Donovan Johnson; 3. Zech McPhearson

1. John Reid; 2. Tariq Castro-Fields; 3. Trent Gordon

Breakdown: There’s been chatter throughout the offseason about Penn State losing Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, but perhaps not enough about the Nittany Lions getting Reid back after a knee injury cost him the 2017 season. “If people forgot, they’re gonna realize real quick when I come back,” Reid told the CDT in April.

Oruwariye served as the “third starter” last year and led the Nittany Lions with four interceptions. Castro-Fields, who had three pass breakups at Michigan State, should improve on his true freshman coming out party. And Johnson — a speedy redshirt freshman out of Detroit — is a name casual Penn State fans probably aren’t familiar with. But they will be.

“(Johnson) has developed tremendously since the spring — a guy that’s caught the coach’s eye and caught guys like me, my eyes, and is ready to make some plays coming up this Saturday,” Oruwariye said of Johnson. “I’m excited for him.”

Safety

Free: 1. Garrett Taylor; 2. Lamont Wade; 3. Jonathan Sutherland

Strong: 1. Nick Scott; 2. Ayron Monroe; 3. John Petrishen

Breakdown: Replacing Marcus Allen and Troy Apke will be difficult, but Scott and Taylor are mature enough to step in and not get caught up in the moment. Scott, a fifth-year senior, was a special teams captain last year, while Taylor has waited his turn.

The real intrigue here comes from the backups. Monroe was once thought to be a future starter, but he’ll have to hold off until next year unless Scott falters. At free safety, Wade — a former five-star prospect — is finally getting comfortable with his transition from corner. Meanwhile, Sutherland is a hard-hitter who could turn some heads.

“They’re both talented, athletic guys,” Taylor said of Wade and Sutherland. “A lot of safety play has to do with knowing your responsibilities and being able to fit your run reads fast. I think the game is slowing down for them, and they’re able to make more plays just off their knowledge of our defensive system.”

Punter

1. Blake Gillikin; 2. Cade Pollard; 3. Vlad Hilling

Breakdown: Oddly enough, Florida Atlantic University’s college of business is tracking a new punting stat called “boom rating” — which takes net yards per kick, line of scrimmage and proximity to each end zone, among other factors, into consideration. In 2017, Gillikin ranked fifth in the nation behind Texas’ Michael Dickson, Texas A&M’s Shane Tripucka, Alabama’s JK Scott and Georgia’s Cam Nizialek — three of which are now in the NFL.

Gillikin, only a junior, might go down as Penn State’s greatest punter of all-time.

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