Penn State completed spring practice Saturday with its Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium, but position battles will continue into the summer for Nittany Lions players. Coach James Franklin and his staff stress the importance of establishing a highly competitive culture, and high-level recruiting has helped enhance talent across the depth chart.
Penn State, coming off a second straight 11-win season that narrowly fell shy of College Football Playoff inclusion, approaches its 2018 season with a compelling blend of experience and rising playmakers. The Nittany Lions must replace several program stalwarts, while key starters return at various roles of importance.
There is still much to be settled for Penn State on both sides of the ball, and the work we don’t see — occurring in the weight room, classroom and film room — will set the stage for final statements in fall camp. The Nittany Lions open the 2018 season on Sept. 1 when Appalachian State comes to town.
Based on past performances, spring camp developments and the projected impact of incoming freshmen, here’s an early projection of how Penn State’s depth chart on defense could shake out. Check out our projection for the offense here.
*Not listed because of injury recovery: Ellison Jordan (redshirt sophomore)
Starters: Kevin Givens (redshirt junior), Robert Windsor (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Antonio Shelton (redshirt sophomore), Fred Hansard (redshirt freshman)
Others to know: Damion Barber (redshirt freshman), Corey Bolds (redshirt freshman), PJ Mustipher (freshman)
Penn State says goodbye to steady senior defensive tackles Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren, both of whom started in 2017. But Nittany Lions defensive line coach Sean Spencer isn’t lacking for experience atop his depth chart.
Givens and Windsor appeared in every game last season, with Givens logging five starts. They combined for 42 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in 2017, and can earn expanded snaps moving ahead.
Shelton could be primed for a breakout campaign after making his collegiate debut in 2017, while there is a strong chance the two-deep here will feature a first-year contributor. Three redshirt freshmen are fighting to fill a slot, while three incoming freshman tackles will further crowd the competition.
Mustipher, a top-5 prospect at the position among 2018 recruits, has the physical tools (6-foot-5, 290 pounds) and attitude (two-time Maryland state wrestling champion) to immediately push more experienced Penn State linemen.
*Not listed because of injury recovery: Torrence Brown (redshirt senior)
Starters: Shareef Miller (redshirt junior), Ryan Buchholz (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Shaka Toney (redshirt sophomore), Shane Simmons (redshirt sophomore)
Others to know: Yetur Gross-Matos (sophomore), Daniel Joseph (redshirt sophomore), Jayson Oweh (freshman), Nick Tarburton (freshman)
There is a strong case to be made for defensive end as the deepest position in terms of players who are capable of contributing this year. Collective experience, along with continued physical development, establish high expectations.
Shareef Miller delivered an MVP performance in the 2017 spring game and didn’t let his foot off the gas pedal heading into his third college campaign. He led the Nittany Lions with 11 tackles for loss and 5 sacks en route to all-conference honors, and now has double-digit sack production in his sights.
Buchholz stepped up following the early season loss of Torrence Brown and should be counted on as a key part of this rotation. Expect a highly competitive battle for reps here, as Toney (6.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) and Simmons (4.5 tackles for loss) both showed flashes of potential stardom as redshirt freshmen.
Gross-Matos was the only first-year freshman Penn State lineman who saw action in 2017, and he’s shown flashes of potential stardom. Joseph, one of three Canadian transplants on Penn State’s defense, is an emerging factor. Oweh is among the most high-ceiling defensive lineman you’ll find in college football, while Tarburton, a fellow 2018 signee, transitioned from linebacker this spring.
Starters: Koa Farmer (redshirt senior), Cam Brown (junior), Micah Parsons (freshman)
Next men up: Ellis Brooks (redshirt freshman), Jarvis Miller (redshirt junior), Jake Cooper (senior)
Others to know: Jan Johnson (redshirt junior), Dae’Lun Darien (redshirt sophomore), Brelin Faison-Walden (redshirt freshman), Brailyn Franklin (redshirt freshman), Jesse Luketa (freshman)
Penn State must replace two starters at linebacker, and those efforts have been discussed as frequently as any offseason narrative. Farmer, a remaining member of James Franklin’s first recruiting class in Happy Valley, is the leading tackler among all Nittany Lions returners from last season (48), and he’ll be counted on to provide leadership for a unit filled with young, emerging talent.
Parsons, the top-ranked Penn State recruit in more than a decade, arrived in January with plenty of fanfare. Feedback from his coaches and teammates has been abundantly positive, and no player recorded more tackles (8) in the Blue-White Game. Labeling him a starter seems presumptive at this point, but a strong summer could make it hard for defensive coordinator Brent Pry to keep him off the field.
Luketa, a fellow freshman, displays innate leadership qualities, has developed his body since January enrollment, and can compete in various spots on the field, while redshirt freshmen Ellis Brooks has been looked to as a leading candidate to make a leap in 2018.
Cam Brown rounds out our early projected trio of starters here. That’s a nod to his experience, reputation for versatility, and rare physical pedigree (6-5, 222 pounds). He’s appeared in 24 games through two seasons, including two starts in 2016.
Starters: Amani Oruwariye (redshirt senior), John Reid (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Tariq Castro-Fields (sophomore), Zech McPhearson (redshirt sophomore)
Others to know: Jabari Butler (redshirt junior), Donovan Johnson (redshirt freshman), Trent Gordon (freshman), Jordan Miner (freshman)
A torn left ACL dashed expectations for a potential all-conference 2017 season for Reid, but he’s returned to team workouts and Penn State is clearly excited to have him back. Reid led the team in pass breakups (9) as a sophomore and remained a defensive leader last season even while sidelined.
Oruwariye may have been Penn State’s most underrated contributor in a 2017 secondary that will have four players at the NFL combine. He finished first on the team in interceptions (4) and third in pass breakups (8).
Castro-Fields was counted on to contribute as a freshman and didn’t disappoint. He should have an excellent shot to earn starter’s reps in 2018, and set the stage for substantial hype heading into his junior year (2019).
McPhearson was the first name Franklin referenced regarding who stood out in the Blue-White Game. He tallied 3 pass breakups Saturday and expressed considerable confidence afterward.
Starters: Nick Scott (redshirt senior), Garrett Taylor (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Lamont Wade (sophomore), Jonathan Sutherland (redshirt freshman)
Others to know: Ayron Monroe (redshirt junior), John Petrishen (redshirt junior), Isaiah Humphries (freshman)
Along with linebacker, safety presented the most questions on defense for Penn State fans entering spring camp. By late stages of the practice schedule, Franklin pointed to Scott and Taylor as leaders of the pack.
Both players have bided their time for this opportunity while earning plenty of respect within the Penn State locker room. Scott, elected the Nittany Lions’ defensive captain this month, has appeared in 39 games since 2015.
The decision to move Wade — Penn State’s top-ranked 2017 signee — from cornerback to safety warranted plenty of attention this offseason, and he’ll continue to adapt to that adjustment this summer. Sutherland, a physical enforcer, received rave reviews from defensive leaders such as Marcus Allen during his redshirt campaign.
Humphries, an early enrolled 2018 signee, is the son of former Penn State defensive back Leonard Humphries.