Penn State must deal with the departure of several notable standouts this offseason, but its collection of newcomers sets the stage for sustained success in State College. The Nittany Lions defensive front, despite losing mainstays, brings back impressive talent primed to develop further in 2018.
James Franklin found himself faced with offensive staff shuffling in December, but things remain intact on defense. Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer stresses the importance of assembling “Wild Dogs” up front each season, and his latest pack appears to be a special group.
“It’s an amazing feeling because when you win up in the trenches, that’s when you win national championships and Big Ten titles,” Nittany Lions signee PJ Mustipher said. “That’s what Penn State is trying to accomplish, and I think they’re doing very well.”
Mustipher is one of three incoming Penn State players considered top-10 prospects at their respective position along the defensive line. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound tackle will join forces with prized pass rushers Jayson Oweh and Micah Parsons.
Parsons, the premier 2018 prospect in Pennsylvania and U.S. Army All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year, will begin his college career at middle linebacker. Considered the nation’s top weakside defensive prospect throughout a productive prep career, expect him to make an impact attacking the offensive backfield.
“Micah is a straight-up athlete,” newly enrolled Penn State linebacker Jesse Luketa said. “He dominates every position and just wants to be the best he can be.”
Parsons, a 6-3, 245-pound playmaker who also rushed for 27 touchdowns in 2017, arrived on campus with Luketa and four other early enrollees last weekend. He’ll have an opportunity to live up to immense expectations while competing in spring camp.
“I have the ability to speed rush, dominate my opponent and hold down my side of the field,” Parsons said last April after earning defensive line MVP honors at a regional camp on The Opening circuit.
He again wowed onlookers leading up to the Jan. 6 All-American Bowl.
— Steve Wiltfong (@SWiltfong247) January 2, 2018
Two days before Parsons played in that national showcase, Oweh announced plans to attend Penn State during the Under Armour All-America Game. Though his decision wasn’t public until the Jan. 4 television broadcast, he actually chose the Nittany Lions over Ohio State by finalizing plans during college football’s inaugural early signing period (Dec. 20-22).
Oweh, a 6-5, 240-pound playmaker, secured 13 sacks in only five games as a senior. It was his second season of competitive football, leading Blair Academy (Blairstown, N.J.) coach Jim Saylor to set a high bar.
“His upside is just tremendous,” Saylor said. “He’s in a program where we get 10 hours of practice per week, and he has to practice offense and defense. When he gets to a college program and has 3 hours each day just to focus on defensive end, it’s going to be special. He’s like a flower that hasn’t even bloomed yet.”
Oweh didn’t wait to proclaim championship ambitions for Penn State’s future, talking Big Ten and national titles immediately after the All-America Game. Regarding the Nittany Lions defensive front, he howled excitement.
“We’re dogs, man. We’re wild dogs,” Oweh said.
Mustipher also attended the All-America Game. A state wresting champion, he was among the most penetrative interior linemen in high school as an upperclassman.
“He’s unguardable, I’m unguardable, so I don’t know what [the offense] would do,” Oweh said.
Fellow defensive line signees Judge Culpepper and Aeneas Hawkins are versatile talents who may warrant reps in a variety of roles dependent on continued physical development and roster needs. Both players are the sons of former longtime NFL players.
Wild Dog reload complete…. Now they deal with us. #WeAre
— Aeneas Hawkins (@AeneasHawkins) January 5, 2018
Of course, these young pups won’t lead the pack right away.
Penn State says goodbye to senior tackles Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren, but Spencer can rely on a group of veterans to set the tone moving forward.
Ryan Buchholz, Shareef Miller, Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor each emerged as key contributors in 2017 as redshirt sophomores. Miller earned spring game defensive MVP honors last April, then followed with a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Redshirt freshmen Shane Simmons, Shaka Toney and Daniel Joseph displayed disruptive abilities off the edge, combining for 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Yetur Gross-Matos, one of three true freshmen who carved out a role during their first year on campus, has the size (6-5, 250) and initial experience to make a leap entering his sophomore season.
“We had a lot of young guys taking a lot of reps early in the season,” Cothran said during Fiesta Bowl media day. “You just need more experience to play at a higher level. And I think they’ve gotten that. So now it’s like we have no freshmen on the team. Everyone’s an upperclassmen, they’ve played enough snaps that you’re confident, you’re not as nervous as you are in the first couple of games.”
Torrence Brown, who started at defensive end in September, is targeting a summer return from his season-ending right knee injury, according to Rich Scarcella of the Reading Eagle. Damion Barber, a former Harrisburg (Pa.) High School teammate of Parsons, should be up to speed for spring camp following his late freshman arrival in 2017. Ellison Jordan and Antonio Shelton, signed in 2016, are also compelling linemen to monitor as they enter their second full collegiate offseason.
The blend of on-field awareness, incoming athleticism and rising redshirt freshmen tackles Corey Bolds and Fred Hansard creates a group in the trenches capable of dominating opponents as they progress together. Penn State continues to stockpile blue-chip prospects at a rate unseen for at least a decade, and the defensive line is a direct beneficiary.
“You look at Corey Bolds and you look at Fred Hansard and you look at Yetur Gross-Matos, none of those guys look like true freshmen,” Franklin said before the season. “They are big, strong, physically developed guys who can run. That’s going to make our defense better.”
And now another wave of Wild Dogs, the most celebrated group Spencer has welcomed to State College, will further deepen a promising pack.
“I love Spence’s rotation and what he’s done with those guys,” Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Brent Pry said in August. “I think it’s important to our depth. Late in the game, third, fourth quarter, that same O-line has been out there snap after snap, and we’re bringing in guys that are fairly fresh. So it’s been a real asset.”
The offense will spend plenty of time in the spotlight again this year as Trace McSorley takes his turn in the limelight of a Heisman Trophy hopeful, and Penn State seeks replacements for program record-setters Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton.
But don’t overlook these Wild Dogs. Once unleashed, they’ll be fun to watch.
“Coach Chaos [Spencer] always talks about building the best defensive line in the country,” Mustipher said. “I think that’s exactly what he’s going to do.”