With five NFL draft hopefuls and a handful of defectors leaving the Lasch Building, the Nittany Lion defense is going to look different in 2019.
There are a couple things up in the air. But in the meantime, we can start projecting how Brent Pry’s unit will take shape in spring ball and fall camp.
Earlier in the week, we broke down the offensive side of the ball. Now, here’s a comprehensive look at what Penn State’s defensive depth chart will look like in 2019.
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Starters: Yetur Gross-Matos, Shane Simmons / Shaka Toney
Backups: Daniel Joseph, Jayson Oweh, Nick Tarburton, Adisa Isaac, Hakeem Beamon
Breakdown: Gross-Matos, somehow just a third-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches in 2018, is perhaps the most overlooked defensive lineman in the country. The rising junior with first-round talent and size (6-foot-5, 259 pounds) had 20 tackles for loss in his first year starting. That total ranked ninth nationally, more than Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell — a couple of probable Day 1 picks with two more games under their belts. Gross-Matos will anchor not just the D-line but Brent Pry’s entire unit.
Simmons and Toney are listed as co-starters because both will play enough snaps to be considered as such. Simmons, the No. 41 prospect in the 2016 recruiting class, has yet to stay healthy and make a consistent impact. But he has a chance to be a complete end, and after competing in a “heated battle” with Gross-Matos for the starting spot last offseason, expect him to line up opposite No. 99 first. But Toney, once known as simply a pass-rush specialist, improved against the run last year and can be counted on in any situation.
Oweh — who played four games as a true freshman and kept his redshirt — came to Penn State in the mold of Gross-Matos: Athletic, but raw. The highly-touted prospect who picked up football late in his high school career could use his 6-foot-5 frame to break out. Joseph’s motor has been complimented by offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and others in the past, and he’ll serve as a fine second-teamer. Tarburton got some run while keeping his redshirt last year. Isaac and Beamon come in as the Nos. 4 and 21 defensive ends in the 2019 class, respectively. The former enrolled early, while the latter will arrive after the spring semester.
Starters: Robert Windsor, PJ Mustipher
Backups: Antonio Shelton, Fred Hansard, Damion Barber, CJ Thorpe, Ellison Jordan, Aeneas Hawkins, Judge Culpepper
Breakdown: The loss of Kevin Givens to the 2019 NFL draft was unexpected — and it will hurt. But if young talent steps up, maybe not as much as one would think.
Windsor is a sure-fire starter after recording 7.5 sacks in the regular season with four coming in November. Next to him, there will be a competition to see who takes over for Givens.
Shelton is the most experienced contender, and he’s seen as a leader, breaking down the huddle prior to games. But Mustipher’s ceiling is high — and after coming on down the stretch, the rising sophomore should make a play for the job. Don’t count out Hansard, either, who started against Appalachian State in place of Givens during the starter’s season-opening suspension. Hansard suffered a season-ending injury against Michigan State in October, but tweeted recently that his boot is off, which bodes well for him entering winter workouts.
Thorpe might move back to the offensive line, but if he doesn’t, Sean Spencer will gladly have his nastiness on the front four. Barber, a former four-star prospect out of Harrisburg, is a work in progress, while Jordan dealt with a knee injury in 2017 and didn’t appear in a game after Week 3 last season. Hawkins and Culpepper both redshirted.
And finally, the Nittany Lions could add more faces to this group. D’Von Ellies — the No. 16 DT in the 2019 class — announces his decision this weekend, and all 16 of 247 Sports’ Crystal Ball predictions have him landing in Happy Valley.
Starters: Cam Brown, Jan Johnson, Micah Parsons
Backups: Jarvis Miller, Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Charlie Katshir, Brandon Smith, Lance Dixon
Breakdown: As far as position groups go, linebacker is experiencing the least amount of turnover. Brown and Johnson return to their starting roles at SAM and MIKE, respectively, while Parsons — who led the team in the tackles as a true freshman — gets the distinction of starter at WILL with Koa Farmer moving on. That stability at the second level could take the Nittany Lion defense from good to great.
Brown, who will miss the first half against Idaho due to a targeting penalty in the Citrus Bowl, held up as a first-year starter, tallying 63 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, six pass breakups, five hurries and three forced fumbles. Johnson held down the middle linebacker role despite many thinking Parsons, Brooks or Luketa would take over by midseason. And Parsons, well, he showed why he was a five-star prospect, demonstrating sideline-to-sideline speed and a nose for the ball in a year in which he simply scratched the surface.
Behind those three, there’s a lot of potential. Brooks, a rising redshirt sophomore, tallied 17 of his 30 tackles in Penn State’s final six games, growing into the MIKE position. Luketa, while he didn’t play much at linebacker in Big Ten play, saw plenty of action on special teams. And Smith and Dixon enter the fold with hype. Smith was a five-star middle linebacker and the No. 18 player in the 2019 class. Dixon, meanwhile, was the No. 11 outside ‘backer this cycle. Both enrolled early and will get a look in spring camp.
“That room has gotten competitive real quick,” head coach James Franklin said on the first day of December’s early signing period. “I mean, like really competitive. I’m talking about a whole other level.”
Starters: John Reid, Tariq Castro-Fields, Donovan Johnson
Backups: DJ Brown, Trent Gordon, Keaton Ellis, Joey Porter Jr., Marquis Wilson, Tyler Rudolph
Breakdown: The secondary will look a little weird without Amani Oruwariye, Penn State’s interceptions leader in 2017 who started every game last year. But Oruwariye, a possible first-round pick, leaves behind a room in good hands.
Reid, along with Garrett Taylor at safety, will lead the secondary. The rising redshirt senior shook off early-season rust to put together a solid 2018 campaign. Opposite him, Castro-Fields will slide in. The rising junior started three times last year and has the man-to-man skills to emerge as a full-time force. Johnson, a rising redshirt sophomore, ought to be considered a starter entering 2019. With Reid not himself in the non-conference, Johnson handled the nickel corner spot like a veteran. He has the lateral speed to make a difference.
Behind those three, corners coach Terry Smith will look for contributions from recently recruited talent. Zech McPhearson announced his intent to transfer, leaving Brown and Gordon as the only backups who were with the team last year. Brown did not play as a true freshman, while Gordon saw action in three games while maintaining his redshirt. Reid complimented both prior to the Citrus Bowl and said the corner room has “a lot of competitive-nature guys who are going to be competing to start.”
Ellis — a State College native — has an opportunity to make “an immediate impact” as a true freshman, per Terry Smith. Wilson joined him as an early enrollee, and so did Rudolph. The case of Rudolph is interesting; he was the No. 20 safety in the 2019 cycle, but is listed on Penn State’s official site as a cornerback. Will he move back to safety with so much attrition at that spot? He might have to.
Starters: Garrett Taylor, Jonathan Sutherland
Backups: Jaquan Brisker, John Petrishen, Justin Neff, Drew Hartlaub, Cody Romano
Breakdown: Pickings are slim at safety with a stunning amount of movement since the end of the regular season. Isaiah Humphries, a three-star member of the 2018 class, transferred to Cal. Ayron Monroe announced his intent to leave, and Lamont Wade is reportedly in the transfer portal.
Monroe’s decision is understandable; he was buried on the depth chart. But Wade was expected to contend, if not be the front-runner, for Nick Scott’s vacated spot alongside Taylor. Wade, a former five-star corner who moved to safety to help fill a need last offseason, can still come back. Entering the portal doesn’t guarantee departure. But he posted on his Instagram story on Monday a photo of a cleaned-out locker in the Lasch Building with the caption, “This wasn’t my decision, but hey.” That’s not a good sign.
If Wade isn’t in the picture — and it looks as if he won’t be — then safeties coach Tim Banks has a predicament on his hands.
Brisker, a JUCO signee from Lackawanna, earned an offer from Alabama and is seen as a legit option to start in his first season. But he won’t arrive in Happy Valley until the summer. It’ll be difficult for him to lock down a No. 1 spot in fall camp alone.
Sutherland, who showed promise as a redshirt freshman, is a hard-hitter whose physicality has drawn comparisons to Marcus Allen. That’s a high praise, but it doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of a free safety. Sutherland would be best suited down in the box, making plays in the run game closer to the line of scrimmage. But that’s where Taylor made his mark in 2018.
So, what does Banks do? Taylor, a rising redshirt senior, could move over to Scott’s old spot for his final year and give Brisker time to develop for 2020. Or Sutherland could switch positions now and have possibly three years at free safety.
Either way, it’s tough to project an incoming JUCO signee without spring practice to start in 2019. At least, not right away.