7 way-too-early predictions for Penn State's defense in 2022
Penn State won’t duplicate its top-10 ranking in scoring defense this coming season, but it could be much more fun to watch and more effective in real terms — read: victories — if things come together under new coordinator Manny Diaz.
Here are some educated guesses — and maybe a little wishful thinking — on what might be in store this fall in Happy Valley with the former Miami Hurricanes head coach running the defense.
More sacks are coming
Although portal import Arnold Ebiketie thrived in his 1 year as a Nittany Lion, racking up 9.5 sacks, the defense as a whole didn’t finish at the quarterback often enough in 2021. In fact, the unit produced just 26 sacks, its worst total in a full season in 5 years. From 2017-19, the Lions averaged 44.5 sacks.
No one is likely to match Ebiketie’s sack output, but 4 or 5 Lions might produce at least 5 QB takedowns in 2022. That would be a welcome change after no one other than the Temple transfer produced more than 3 last season.
This prediction of a more balanced sack attack stems from PSU’s greater depth on the defensive front and an expectation that Diaz will bring a more aggressive style than Brent Pry’s vanilla, bend-don’t-break approach.
D-line will be better
Though Ebiketie is now in the NFL, the Lions will have edge rushers Adisa Isaac (returning from a season-long injury), transfer Demeioun Robinson from Maryland and 5-star, 250-pound speed rusher Dani Dennis-Sutton vying to fill his shoes. In the middle, PSU brings back veteran PJ Mustipher after he missed the second half of 2021 with an injury — and also Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard, who gained a bunch of experience filling in for Mustipher. Adding depth are veteran “glue guy” Nick Tarburton and 6-6, 260-pound Smith Vilbert, who had 3 sacks in the Outback Bowl.
Collectively, the edge guys should produce more sacks than their 2021 counterparts. And the big guys should be able to plug the middle and not allow an opponent to pound out 350-plus rushing yards, as both Illinois and Arkansas did last year.
Manny won’t ‘prevent’ victories
Even as the 6th-best scoring defense in 2021, Penn State didn’t display a killer instinct or the ability to close out close games after the opening 16-10 victory at Wisconsin.
- In the 23-20 loss to Iowa, the Lions gave up an 11-play, 75-yard TD drive immediately after taking a 17-3 lead. Then they slowly withered in the second half against the B1G’s worst offense.
- After going up 17-14 on Michigan in the fourth quarter, the Lions immediately allowed the Wolverines to go 75 yards on 5 rushes by Hassan Haskins followed by a 47-yard TD pass.
- Michigan State, after trailing 20-17, posted a nearly 9-minute TD drive in the third quarter and put the game out of reach with a 52-yard march in the fourth.
Bottom line, Penn State’s defense couldn’t make the better teams in the Big Ten uncomfortable in crunch time. The guess here is that Diaz at least will try to change that, with more stunts and blitzes. If so, the Lions will probably allow a few more “home run” plays to opposing offenses, but also should get off the field more quickly and often than they did under Brent Pry.
Curtis Jacobs will lead team in tackles
As the lone returning starting linebacker, Curtis Jacobs should fully blossom as a third-year sophomore. Penn State’s highest-ranked recruit in the 2020 class, the speedy Jacobs moves to the weak side where he’ll be free to roam and wreak havoc as Micah Parsons did while manning that position in his final season at PSU.
Last year, Jacobs finished 6th on the team in tackles (61) and tied for 2nd in sacks (3). Let’s set the over-unders at 100 tackles and 5 sacks for Jacobs in a breakout campaign.
Ji’Ayir Brown becomes 1st-round NFL pick
After sharing the defensive spotlight with fellow safety Jaquan Brisker last year, Brown takes the leadership role as a super senior. He’s coming off a season in which he led the nation with 6 INTs and led the Lions in solo tackles. After Brisker went from former JUCO player at Lackawanna College to 2nd-round NFL pick, his fellow teammate at both college stops will do Brisker one better.
Brown has looked like a natural football player and leader since bursting onto the scene with a game-saving interception in last year’s opener against Wisconsin. All indications from spring workouts suggest he’s continuing to grow in his on-field and locker room roles.
‘D’ won’t match its 2 shutouts from 2021
Having lost 4 of its top 5 tacklers and its coordinator, the Penn State defense has been and will be adjusting on the fly. It could be very good if all goes right, but probably won’t be as steady and consistent. Even lesser opponents are likely to find some openings and hit some big plays. Besides, shutouts are kind of a fluke thing anyway.
Won’t duplicate top-10 finish
Benefitting from the shutouts of Indiana and Rutgers, Penn State tied for 6th with Minnesota for defensive stinginess at 17.3 points allowed per game. The shutouts and red-zone success probably can’t be duplicated, and the Lions are likely to give up 20-plus points per game in 2022.
That said, if Jacobs and Brown live up to expectations, this defense could perform more dynamically than the 2021 unit in key situations and in crunch time.