Better or worse: Previewing Penn State's defense in 2021
This is the preseason defensive preview in which we should be lamenting the loss of Micah Parsons and pondering how in the world Penn State is going to fill the void he left behind.
Instead, Parsons seems like a distant memory after opting out of what coulda, woulda, shoulda been his breakout season anchoring the Lions’ defense from his linebacker spot. He doesn’t leave behind truly monster numbers or a signature play in the vein of “The Lavar Leap” that older fans will remember from before the turn of the century.
But maybe, just maybe, we will look back in years to come and realize Parsons’ biggest contribution to the program didn’t come on the field at all, despite 2 straight seasons leading the squad in tackles. Maybe he will be remembered for restoring the Linebacker U moniker after a long drought in the wake of the (sorry to bring it up) Sanctions Era of PSU football.
When Cam Brown went in the 6th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, it ended a 6-year stretch in which Penn State had zero LBs drafted, tying for the longest such drought since before Joe Paterno became head coach.
But it’s Parsons, who went No. 12 overall to the Cowboys this year, who has set the stage for a turnaround at the position. Former 5-star recruit Brandon Smith and others will now take up the mantle.
Here’s what to expect from Smith and the rest of Brent Pry’s defense this season:
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Odafe (you knew him as Jayson) Oweh joined Parsons as a 1st-round pick (31st to the Ravens), giving Penn State 2 players in the 1st round for the first time in 18 years. And fellow DE Shaka Toney went in the 7th round, so the Lions have major spots to fill on the edges. Toney had a team-high 5 sacks in 2020, while Oweh — rather stunningly for a 1st-round NFL pick — had none but did finish 4th on the team with 38 tackles.
The situation became more dire with the recent news that junior DE Adisa Isaac is injured and likely to miss the entire season. That leaves junior Nick Tarburton (2 career tackles) and grad transfer Arnold Ebiketie (Temple) to man the edges, and they will be the biggest question marks on a defense that otherwise returns a ton of experienced players.
On the inside, PJ Mustipher and Fred Hansard will bring their lunch pails for one more go-round as seniors, with Mustipher expected to start. At the other DT spot, sophomore Hakeem Beamon might have the upper-hand but grad transfer Derrick Tangelo (Duke) should see time too.
Whatever the mix, Penn State will be hard-pressed to match last season’s sack rate (21 in 9 games, 5th in B1G) or even produce as much pressure on opposing QBs after losing its top 3 pass-rush specialists in Toney, Antonio Shelton and Shane Simmons.
Run defense: Better
At linebacker, Penn State returns its leading tackler in senior Ellis Brooks along with the aforementioned Smith, a junior who led the Lions in tackles for loss and is the only returning player with as many as 2 sacks to his name on the 2020 stat sheet. Senior Jesse Luketa (2nd on the Lions in tackles last season) and sophomore Curtis Jacobs — the top-rated player of PSU’s 2020 recruiting class — will essentially both also be starters, as PSU may at times put 4 LBs on the field with sets that use a DE-LB hybrid. Luketa is working at DE as well as LB in camp, head coach James Franklin confirmed on Saturday.
Penn State ranked 4th in the B1G in rushing defense (130.2 ypg) and third in total defense (328.8) last season despite an offense that gave away possessions and field position at alarming rates. Sean Clifford and the offense almost certainly will not be that bad again, and the LB corps should be solid barring a spate of injuries. Junior Charlie Katshir should be the first guy off the bench; beyond him, the Lions are short on bodies and experience.
But with good luck on the health front, the LBs should be stout against the run, especially given the guys who’ll have their backs. Penn State returns a deep, experienced and highly skilled secondary.
Pass defense: Better
Lamont Wade will be missed, but the Lions are loaded with proven players in the secondary who could hit new heights this season. Jaquan Brisker and Joey Porter will bring the bulk of the run support, with seniors Tariq Castro-Fields (limited to 3 games last year), Ji’Ayir Brown and Jonathan Sutherland also contributing. True freshman 4-star CB Kalen King is already drawing rave reviews from the staff and could be in the mix along with junior Keaton Ellis and sophomore Daequan Hardy.
The Lions, No. 2 against the pass in the B1G last year, might not hold opponents under 200 yards passing per game again this season, but if so only because other teams will be forced to go to the air more often against them this fall.
Special teams: Even
Jordan Stout returns to the punting and kickoff duties for one more season. He was in the bottom half of the B1G in total and net punting yards, but outstanding kicking off — 42 of 50 for touchbacks, by far the best percentage in the B1G.
The top 3 tacklers are back, including LBs Brooks and Luketa. The top recruits from 2019 and 2020, LBs Smith and Jacobs, are back — and should be poised to really blossom over a full season. Penn State isn’t likely to go 0-for-6-years in regards to linebackers in the NFL Draft again anytime soon. These guys most likely won’t rise to the 1st-round level ala Parsons and LaVar Arrington (No. 2 overall in 2000), but early-round status should be in range. And that hasn’t happened around these parts (prior to Parsons) since Sean Lee and NaVorro Bowman went in the second and third rounds in 2010.
From his strong safety spot, Brisker boosted his NFL stock by leaps and bounds last year, earning first-team all-America status from Pro Football Focus. He’ll be looking to build on his 57 tackles, team-leading 6 pass break-ups, 1 interception, 2 QB hurries and 3 tackles for loss.
All this back-end talent might free up space for one of the relative newbies at DE to break out — as guys such as Oweh, Yetur Gross-Matos and Carl Nassib have in recent years. Unfortunately for the Lions, Isaac was the player most likely to do so. The grad transfers, Ebiketie and Tangelo, have played lots of college football and will provide stability along the line while the younger players mature.
This defense should be able to double last year’s anemic rate of 1 takeaway per game and do a much better job getting off the field on third downs. If that happens — and it should — the Lions will improve in the most important stat of all, points allowed per game. They should wind up closer to 2019’s level (16.0 allowed, 2nd in B1G) than last season’s (27.7, 6th).
People might even find themselves talking up Linebacker U once again.