Better or worse? Previewing Penn State's defense in 2022
Penn State pretty much perfected bend-don’t-break as a schematic art form in Brent Pry’s 6th and final season as the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator.
But now James Franklin’s longtime assistant is gone, as are 4 of his top 5 tacklers and 7 of the top 11. Enter Manny Diaz, who returns to a coordinator post after 3 seasons as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, his career path moving the opposite direction of Pry’s.
Diaz won’t reproduce Pry’s formula, nor should he. The turnover in player personnel will force Diaz to adapt. And the 2021 defense was not without deficiencies despite some serious statistical success.
On the positive side, the Lions ranked 6th-best in the nation in points allowed, ceding opponents 17.3 per game. In the red zone, only 2 teams across the country were stingier allowing TDs, or points of any kind. The unit also ranked 1st in the Big Ten and 6th nationally in yards allowed per pass attempt.
On the flip side, Penn State had its worst sack total since 2010, finished 100th in 4th-down efficiency (it allowed 15 conversions on 24 attempts), gave up catch-and-run TDs in crunch time in narrow losses to Iowa and Michigan, and at times got bullied by power running teams.
Better or worse in 2022? Given all those vectors of analysis, that’s a complicated question. Let’s parse:
Key losses: Jaquan Brisker, S; Ellis Brooks, LB; Brandon Smith, LB; Arnold Ebiketie, DE; Jesse Luketa, DE-LB; Tariq Castro-Fields, CB; Jordan Stout, P/K.
Key returnees: Ji’Ayir Brown, S; Curtis Jacobs, LB; PJ Mustipher, DT; Adisa Isaac, DE; Joey Porter, CB; Daequan Hardy, CB.
Key newcomers: Demeioun Robinson, DE (transfer from Maryland); Dani Dennis-Sutton, 5-star DL.
Pass rush: Better
The Lions produced just 27 sacks last season, even with Arnold Ebiketie racking up 9.5 as he parlayed his lone season in a PSU uniform into a 2nd-round NFL Draft selection. Outside of the Temple transfer, no Lion had more than 3 QB takedowns. That’s a far cry from 2016-19, Pry’s first 4 seasons as DC, when the Lions averaged more than 43 sacks per season with at least 40 every year.
Adisa Isaac (returning from injury), Demeioun Robinson (Maryland transfer and 2021 5-star recruit) and Dani Dennis-Sutton (true freshman 5-star) will be among those vying to fill the edge roles left open by Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa. The middle of the line should also be better with the return of veteran tackle PJ Mustipher, who missed the final 7 games of last season with an injury.
The main reason to expect a better pass rush, though, is that Diaz seems determined to make it happen, promising a more aggressive style.
“If you want to know my philosophy, the best coverage is pass rush,” Diaz said this spring. “We’re trying to get our sack numbers up, our tackles for loss numbers up, and our disruption numbers up.”
Pass defense: Worse
Ji’Ayir Brown, Joey Porter Jr. and nickel back Daequan Hardy return from one of the program’s best secondaries ever, and the depth is there to replace Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields, tough as that might be. Most notably, Keaton Ellis, Jaylen Reed, Johnny Dixon and Kalen King seem ready to step up.
Add in that converted safety Jonathan Sutherland and speedy sophomore Curtis Jacobs will be manning 2 of the 3 LB spots, and the back end of the defense should be flying around just like last year.
Still, the bar set in 2021 — the pass defense rating came in at No. 8 in the country — might be tough to reach. Penn State was 1 of 3 B1G teams with more INTs (14) than passing TDs allowed (11, t-4th in nation). Only 1 B1G team allowed fewer passing TDs (Wisconsin, 9). The Lions allowed 199.8 passing yards per game (3rd in B1G, 23rd in nation) and 5.9 per attempt (1st B1G, 6th overall).
With Diaz promising to take more risks, the Lions are likely to give up a few more big plays. So expect these stats and rankings to get slightly worse. But this will remain an elite secondary.
Run defense: Even
A lot rides on the broad shoulders of 5th-year senior PJ Mustipher. If the 329-pound tackle can stay healthy after missing the final 7 games a year ago, maybe Penn State can hold its own up front.
After losing the team captain against Iowa, the Lions got bullied the next week to the tune of 357 rushing yards by Bret Bielema’s previously struggling Illinois squad. They also ceded 146 second-half yards to Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson and 353 to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.
For the full season, the Lions allowed 153.8 yards per game (10th B1G, 67th overall). With bend-don’t-break applying equally vs. rush and pass, the team allowed 21 first downs per game (10th, 73rd) and was 113th nationally in time of possession (27:57 per game).
Even with Mustipher back, changing those numbers won’t be easy. The top 2 tacklers are gone from the linebacker corps, and Ebiketie, Luketa and Derrick Tangelo are gone up front. If Tyler Elsdon wins the job in the middle, the Lions will have a linebacker group with no one hitting 230 pounds on the scale, according to the current roster. Converted safety Jonathan Sutherland, expected to start on the strong side, is listed at 210.
Diaz faces a challenge trying to solve this riddle. It’s hard to imagine Penn State can be much worse against the run, but also hard to imagine it can be a whole lot better.
Special teams: Worse
Jordan Stout will be missed. Playing bend-don’t-break, the Lions needed good field position, and their punter/kickoff man forced opponents into long fields on a regular basis with his powerful right leg. Penn State has replacement options, potentially good ones, but some drop-off seems inevitable.
This unit will be smaller and less experienced than it was last year, not to mention under new direction.
Even if Diaz does a masterful job putting it together, the defense probably will miss a beat or two early on. And just based on luck and matchups, the scoring numbers and red zone success probably can’t be repeated.
The 2022 defense probably will give up a few more points than its predecessor and roughly the same yardage (353.6 ypg, 5th B1G, 39th overall). If it can pump up the sack, TFL and turnover totals; and perform better in crunch time; the W-L results might be better, even if the stats are somewhat worse.