Better or worse? Previewing Penn State's defense in 2021
Let’s hope by now, Penn State has burned the tapes from the first 5 weeks of the 2020 season. All of the team was not up to par, but particularly a defense that was highly thought of entering the season.
Having a smooth offseason certainly helps, as does not having the country’s best defender opt out before the season. Even so, the amount of big plays and poor tackling was unacceptable as Penn State allowed at least 30 points in all 5 of its first games.
With 7 starters back, a budding star at the linebacker position and a strong secondary, Brent Pry has the framework of a defense that can compete for a Big Ten title, but it will need to be ready for Week 1 at Wisconsin as there’s no easing into the schedule.
With the reset button pressed and James Franklin’s program back on the tracks, what can we expect from Penn State’s defense in 2021? Let’s find out…
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Penn State’s pass rush will likely be worse in 2021, but only by a hair. Replacing a first- and seventh-round draft pick on the ends is a tough ask, but for all the hype and talent surrounding Jayson Oweh, he lacked actual production in terms of sacks. For as much as Penn State has churned out NFL-caliber defensive ends in recent years, their play hasn’t necessarily translated into a high sack output.
With Oweh and Shaka Toney gone (O and 5 sacks, respectively in 2020), the Lions will call upon Adisa Isaac at one end and either Nick Tarburton or Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie at the other. Isaac is a highly-thought-of, Class of 2019, 4-star recruit who has played in 20 games, but he’s been stuck behind a deep position group that also included Yetur Gross-Matos in Isaac’s freshman year, so he’s never been asked to be the No. 1 guy, but 2021 could be a breakout type season for him.
Ebiketie is probably Penn State’s biggest pull from the transfer portal. The former Owl was second-team All-AAC last year after recording 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 3 forced fumbles with Temple. He’s a welcome addition to John Scott Jr.’s line and should have an immediate impact.
Unfortunately for the Lions, they lost all 3 of their top sack producers from last season, needing to replace Toney, and defensive tackles Antonio Shelton and Shane Simmons, the latter two who left Happy Valley in the transfer portal.
Being that this is a Penn State defense, the linebackers always pack a decent pass-rushing punch, and former 5-star recruit Brandon Smith is no exception, looking to be the next face of Linebacker U while building on his 2 sacks from 2020. Jesse Luketa will be moving from linebacker to defensive end at times this season in order to boost his résumé as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, so his versatility will also benefit the pass rush, but in total, there is just too much raw talent to assume the Lions can keep pace with last year’s unit.
Run defense: Better
Gone is arguably the heart and soul of the defense with defensive tackle Antonio Shelton’s transfer to Florida, but 323-pound senior PJ Mustipher can metaphorically and physically fill the empty hole. Coming off a 2020 season in which he recorded 35 tackles and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention, Mustipher led all Penn State linemen in tackles last year and should build upon it in 2021.
He’ll likely be accompanied by either redshirt senior Fred Hansard or sophomore Hakeem Beamon. Duke transfer Derrick Tangelo also adds needed depth and will factor into the rotation.
Last year’s defensive line, as much of the defense in its entirety in the first few weeks, was frequently bullied and allowed far too many broken tackles on first contact. Penn State allowed 165.2 rushing yards a game during weeks 2-6, including 208 against Ohio State, and it also surrendered 4 rushing touchdowns to the Hawkeyes. This was unfamiliar territory for a defense that typically is a calling card of the program.
The linebackers should provide a more-than-solid group of tacklers should the running back reach the second level. Ellis Brooks and Luketa were Penn State’s two leading tacklers from 2020, and Brandon Smith could develop into the conference’s best linebacker. Curtis Jacobs, whose athleticism has been praised by coaches for his sensational chase-down speed, is expected to start at the “Sam” this season.
Passing defense: Better
Look, last year’s secondary blew a ton of coverage assignments early on and gave up far too many explosive plays, and nearly the same unit is back. But the same unit is back (with the exception of Lamont Wade), and that’s a great thing.
Super seniors Tariq Castro-Fields and Jaquan Brisker will anchor the secondary in talent and veteran leadership. Brisker has a case to be the best safety in the B1G, while Castro-Fields will be doing everything in his power to enhance his NFL Draft résumé at the corner position.
No freshman received more hype this spring than cornerback Kalen King, who will see plenty of time this year, but he’ll be behind a player in sophomore Joey Porter Jr. who had a breakout season last year for the Lions, defending four passes and recording 33 tackles.
There’s definitely a dropoff in the wake of Wade’s NFL departure, as Penn State has no immediate answer to play his safety position. However, Jonathan Sutherland and Ji’Ayir Brown will have a compelling battle this offseason for the spot, and Keaton Ellis, who has had strong moments at the corner position, will also work in there this season as South Carolina transfer Johnny Dixon may be taking Ellis’ spot at the cornerback position.
Considering as poorly as the secondary played at times last season, Penn State’s passing defense still ranked 2nd in the Big Ten, allowing under 200 yards a game. The yardage allowed stat may not improve all that much as offenses won’t be running out the clock so much this season, but the performance as a whole just from an eyeball perspective should improve in 2021.
Special teams: Better
Kickoff specialist Jordan Stout will in all likelihood retain his job as the starting punter, as the only other competition will come from walk-on Barney Amor after Levi Forrest transferred this offseason. Stout definitely struggled in 2020, his first season punting, as he finished 13th in the Big Ten among qualified punters, averaging just 41.55 yards a punt.
Penn State won’t get any real help at the punting position until 2022 when Sander Sahaydak, the nation’s top punting prospect, joins the program. But for all intents and purposes, Penn State shouldn’t find itself in nearly as many punting situations this season.
Not only should the players make strides on the field this season, but you know what is probably the best defender in all of college football? Having 110,00 screaming fans in Beaver Stadium.
Penn State received no gift from the scheduling gods in terms of easing into the season with a trip to Camp Randall and home contests against a Ball State team that essentially returns its entire roster and Auburn to begin the year, but the Lions’ defense looks much more like what fans had become accustomed to over the decades as the season wrapped up play in 2020.
2021 should be a year of redemption for the whole team and Brent Pry who found himself at the center of a lot of fan scrutiny last year. The defense should do its part, the only question is can Penn State’s quarterback?