STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The biggest challenge Penn State faced at the beginning of the 2016 season was replacing three NFL draft picks on the defensive line.
For almost any program, replacing two of the first 15 linemen selected in the NFL draft and a third that was among the top 40 is an incredibly tough ask. Then Penn State lost all three of its starting linebackers by the end of Week 3.
Though much of the focus has been on keeping the patchwork linebacker corps together, those losses also thrust more responsibility on a group of defensive linemen that probably wasn’t ready for it.
Having talented, experienced linebackers could have helped mask some growing pains up front, but the Nittany Lions weren’t afforded that luxury, and a trip to Michigan exposed that, as the veteran Wolverines mauled Penn State on the ground.
A month later, a couple of those linebackers might be close to returning. They are also coming back to a different defense. Penn State’s defensive line has figured some things out.
“I think that’s the group that has probably grown as much as anybody,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I think our defensive line is playing pretty well right now. I think that’s probably the biggest difference between now and Game 1 is the experience of our defensive line. Those guys make plays and are more stout and aggressive as the season has gone on.”
When Penn State had three NFL-level talents last season, it made sense to let those guys play as many snaps as possible. The Nittany Lions haven’t been able to recruit the volume of players a typical Power 5 school would because of NCAA sanctions, so depth has been an issue for a few years.
The depth has improved as the program tries to most away from the lingering effects of the sanctions, so there are more options available. That has helped foster a different philosophy for sharing playing time.
Penn State is relying on a by-committee approach on the defensive line, and key contributions are spread out. For example, defensive tackle Kevin Givens was an early bright spot this season, but he’s not going to start Saturday after being passed on the depth chart by Curtis Cothran.
“He’s done some really good things,” Franklin said of Givens. “We’re really happy and impressed with Kevin. He continues to grow in every area of his life, and he needs to continue to do that. We think Curtis is doing some nice things for us, as well. We kind of look at it as we have three guys there: Curtis and Antoine White and Kevin. They are all playing really well and playing at a high level.”
Franklin has downplayed the depth chart at the position on multiple occasions, in part because the guys listed second on the two-deep are often getting close to 50 percent of the snaps.
After yielding more than 300 rushing yards to Pitt and Michigan, Penn State was a little better against Minnesota (228 rushing yards) and much better against Maryland (170 rushing yards, 130 below the Terps’ average to that point).
This defensive line will face another huge test Saturday when No. 2 Ohio State comes to Beaver Stadium. It’s a slightly different challenge than when Penn State went to the Big House and got plastered by Michigan, but it is a chance to see if the gains the defensive line have made can be retained.
Michigan’s strong, experienced offensive line overpowered Penn State. Ohio State’s line is younger but possibly more talented. The Buckeyes offense will likely be more diverse as well. Jet sweeps and misdirection plays toward the sideline were a problem earlier in the season against Pitt and, even, Temple. Ohio State will have All-America candidate Curtis Samuel handling many of those plays, and J.T. Barrett will be the best runner Penn State has faced at quarterback.Michigan, Maryland and Pitt are all between 15th and 20th in the nation in rushing offense, but Ohio State is ranked fourth at 300.5 yards per game.
Ohio State will feel no pity for Penn State. The Buckeyes also lost seven defensive starters to the NFL, including six that were taken in the first 102 selections. That type of loss can cripple most college football programs, but Ohio State is one of a handful of exceptions.
Penn State has not been able to recruit like Ohio State has, and might not be able to even when the effects of the sanctions are long gone. This group of defensive linemen is a mixture of older less-heralded players and younger players with obvious potential trying to mature as fast as possible.
Trying to slow down the mighty Ohio State running machine will be a tough task, but Penn State’s chances look a lot better than it did a month ago when it seemed like Michigan running backs were getting a police escort to the secondary as the game wore on.
Getting some veteran linebackers back is going to be great for the defense in the second half of the season, but the improvement along the line could also be a big boon for the Nittany Lions.