Better or worse? Previewing Penn State's defense in 2020
A quick glance at Penn State’s defensive roster and one big problem emerges — a problem every program wishes it had. With only 11 starting spots, there is going to be a whole lot of talent forced to watch from the sideline.
James Franklin and Brent Pry’s defense last season finished No. 8 nationally in points allowed (16 points) and 5th in rush defense, allowing just 95.0 yards a game. The Nittany Lions held 8 opponents to no more than 13 points.
The Blue and White defense continually took pressure off Sean Clifford and the offense early in games. It wasn’t until the 9th game that the Nittany Lions allowed a first-quarter touchdown, coinciding with the team’s first loss, a 31-26 defeat at Minnesota.
Despite losing 6 starters, including 2-time All-Big Ten defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, who was selected in the 2nd round by the Carolina Panthers, Penn State brings back a defense led by consensus All-America linebacker Micah Parsons (above) that has both the talent and depth to be even better than it was last season.
Parsons will be the face of a linebacking group that could be the best in the country, but will he and his counterparts prove that Penn State is the true LBU and shut down one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses at Ohio State, or are the Nittany Lions still not quite ready for the College Football Playoff?
Pressuring the QB: Even
Gone is Gross-Matos, but returning is 5th-year senior Shaka Toney who has long been the leader of the defensive line. Toney started all 13 games last season and has 15.5 career sacks. His likely partner at the other end will be the freakishly athletic Jayson Oweh. Not only do Oweh’s measurables allegedly measure up to Parsons, but the redshirt sophomore had 5 sacks last season coming off the bench.
The Nittany Lions are deep at the end position with Shane Simmons back for his 5th year and sophomore Adisa Isaac looking to build off his true freshman season in which he recorded 14 tackles and 3 for a loss in 11 games.
Parsons has also demonstrated a knack for getting to the quarterback. Last season he finished with 5 sacks, including a pair in the Cotton Bowl win over Memphis.
Something worth monitoring this season is the effect that the departure of defensive line coach Sean Spencer has on this group. Spencer left for the New York Giants in what was probably the most surprising coaching change in Happy Valley. He had a way of firing up his group of “Wild Dogs” that new coach John Scott Jr. must try to replicate.
Run defense: Even
Moving inside, the Nittany Lions will have to replace Robert Windsor’s 16 tackles for loss over the past 2 seasons, but 5th-year senior Antonio Shelton is waiting in the wings. Shelton started 12 games last year and is one of the real vocal personalities on this team. P.J. Mustipher will start alongside Shelton. The 6-4, 305-pound junior was a blue-chip recruit and showed the havoc he is capable of wreaking with a 7-tackle and forced-fumble performance against Iowa despite coming off the bench.
Defensive tackle depth took a bit of a hit with Damion Barber transferring, but both Fred Hansard and Judge Culpepper are more than viable options to help maintain the Nittany Lions’ status as the top rushing defense in the conference.
At the second level is where Penn State should really shine this year with its group of linebackers. The obvious here is Parsons, who has led the team in tackles in both of his first 2 seasons, but the Nittany Lions must replace Cam Brown and Jan Johnson. Fortunately, Franklin has done a fantastic job of reloading the position group.
Former 5-star recruit Brandon Smith will start the opposite side of Parsons in his second year at Happy Valley, while the middle will be a battle between Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa, who finished last season with 39 and 24 tackles, respectively.
Pass Defense: Better
Pass defense was one of the lone weaknesses down the stretch last season, no better encapsulated by the 454 yards that Memphis’ Brady White threw for in the Cotton Bowl. In 3 of Penn State’s last 5 games, it allowed over 330 yards passing, dropping the Blue and White to 13th in the Big Ten in yards allowed through the air with 251.5. (They were stingy when it mattered, though, allowing just 10 TD passes.)
The decision, however, for cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields to return for a 5th season is huge for the secondary. Castro-Fields was hobbled for much of the second half of the season with injuries but is poised to emerge as one of the B1G’s real shutdown corners.
John Reid will need to be replaced at the other corner position, but Donovan Johnson, Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson all have experience, so there shouldn’t be too much of a drop-off.
Lamont Wade returns at safety after finishing 2019 with 67 tackles, 5 pass breakups and 3 forced fumbles. He’ll no longer be roaming the secondary with Garrett Taylor, but instead will be joined by senior Jaquan Brisker. Brisker saw substantial playing time last season in his first year after transferring from Lackawanna College.
Reid’s IQ is a big loss, but given Castro-Fields’ health and the fact that opposing QBs are going to always have a wary eye out for Parsons, the pass defense should improve and force more than the 10 interceptions it did last year.
Special Teams: Worse
Kickoff specialist Jordan Stout will be getting a lot of work this season as he is also adding punting to his list of duties along with long-distance field goals.
Replacing Blake Gillikin is a tough act to follow. Gillikin started 4 years and is tied for 2nd on Penn State’s all-time average punt distance.
Considering how good the defense was last season, it’s a tall order to be even better this year, but that’s exactly what Brent Pry has in mind for this talented group.
Micah Parsons is must-watch television. He finds a way to be involved in every play and will be even more motivated to unleash his inner Lavar Arrington in what will in all likelihood be his final season of college football.
This year’s defense is more than capable of holding down the fort while the offense finds its identity with a new OC and will keep the Nittany Lions in any game, even when an Ohio State blitzkrieg comes to town.
It’s been awhile, but LBU should finally be back.