STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It didn’t sneak up on Penn State overnight, but the Nittany Lions’ need to build depth at defensive tackle behind projected starters Kevin Givens and Rob Windsor is among the team’s most pressing needs.
“You better have a two-deep, if not a three-deep that you feel good about with the way we rotate,” coach James Franklin said Wednesday.
For the time being Penn State hasn’t solidified what the rotation would look like and while there’s still plenty of time between now and September to figure it out, losing three seniors means this group is going to features plenty of new faces next season.
“Obviously we’re making progress with some young guys, but we got some redshirt freshmen that we’re kind of depending on which is not ideal,” Franklin said. “You’d love to have seniors, juniors and maybe a few redshirt sophomore sprinkled in on the two deep, but there’s obviously a lot of teams across the country that play with redshirt freshmen and we’ve got to be ready to do that as well.”
Those redshirt freshmen Franklin alluded to would be Damion Barber, Corey Bolds and Fred Hansard. They all should be worth keeping an eye on during the April 21 Blue-White game while redshirt sophomores Antonio Shelton and Ellison Jordan will need to take on much bigger roles this fall as well.
Freshman PJ Mustipher, fresh off a second state wrestling title, enrolls this summer. Mustipher told Land of 10 in February that he’s in the best shape of his life following his final wrestling season and that his goal is to play early. With three redshirt freshmen ahead of him it won’t be an easy path, but there certainly is a need for young linemen to step up.
“They’ve gotten a lot better,” center Connor McGovern said of the tackles. “Every practice they’re getting more experience, so they’re becoming more comfortable with their calls up front and their movements. Once the season rolls around, I think they’ll be real comfortable.”
DL coach Sean Spencer likes to rely on a heavy rotation of linemen and there’s also added pressure on Penn State’s defensive ends to be a strength this season while the depth up the middle — both at defensive tackle and at middle linebacker — gets sorted out.
The comparisons many coaches make and it’s one Franklin made before too is that teams should be built strong up the middle, much like they would be in baseball. Right now that’s not the case.
Add in the changes in the secondary where there will be new starting safeties and the need for a steady pass rush will fall on Shareef Miller, Ryan Buchholz, Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, Yetur Gross-Matos and Torrence Brown.
“We feel good about that group,” Franklin said of the defensive ends. “A lot of guys have played a lot of football for us, a lot of athleticism and some guys who played last year who were undersized like Shane Simmons is now over 250 pounds, gas like Shaka who obviously the media guide said one thing but probably was another in terms of his weight he’s finally getting bigger and stronger. … We’re pretty confident where we’re at at defensive end. It needs to be a strength of our defense.”
For the time being Penn State has to figure out if some of these flashes they’ve seen in practice along the interior will translate to viable options this fall. And, Franklin also mentioned that perhaps the three senior defensive tackles who are gone could potentially be a reason why the Penn State offensive line, which is expected to be a strength this year, has looked particularly strong this spring.
“It’s hard sometimes to judge that based on the lack of experience at d-tackle,” he said. “It’s hard to kind of balance that as well as are they as far along as I think they are but also they’re not going against three senior d-tackles right now as well.”