With the great exception of 2020, the Penn State defense has been consistently productive, finishing in the top quadrant of most rankings of note during Brent Pry’s tenure as defensive coordinator. Luckily for the Lions, Manny Diaz’s defenses have also ranked pretty well over his time as DC.
The Nittany Lions did lose a ton of production from the 2021 unit, but they also get a couple of pieces back from injury, as well as reinforcements in the form of transfers and freshman (both the true and redshirt variety) that will be expected to contribute from day one.
Penn State should be solid in just about every area of the defense except linebacker, where, if the Lions don’t get another offseason transfer or 10, they may be one injury away from disaster. Here’s how it all breaks down.
Safety: Ji’Ayir Brown, Keaton Ellis
Brown is penciled in as a starter, having been one of the most important returnees of the offseason. Ellis has been working in the other starting spot to date, but Zakee Wheatley has been impressing everyone as well, so don’t be surprised to see him spend some time alongside Brown, if not starting altogether.
Others to watch: Jaylen Reed, Zakee Wheatley
Corner: Joey Porter Jr., Kalen King, Daequan Hardy (Nickel)
Porter Jr., the other “most important returnee” in the offseason, anchors one of the corner spots in the same way Brown anchors the safeties. Kalen King was one of the more impressive freshmen last season, so much so he ended up burning his redshirt. Hardy has already played a bunch of nickel, and with the uncertainty at linebacker, don’t be surprised if this happens even more in 2022.
Others to watch: Johnny Dixon, Marquis Wilson, Cam Miller
Linebacker: Kobe King, Curtis Jacobs, Jonathan Sutherland
Linebacker is mighty thin, to the point where Sutherland, someone who spent most of his time in special teams, is slated to start barring a late addition to the linebacking corps. Can one of the freshmen prove worthy of a starting spot in summer camp? We shall see, but, barring an aforementioned transfer, or a massive jump from Sutherland, linebacker will remain the Nittany Lions’ weak spot in 2022.
That said, Jacobs and King already proved that “weak spot” doesn’t have to mean “liability.” If they both can make up for the lack of overall depth by staying healthy, the unit can at least be productive.
Others to watch: Tyler Elsdon, Charlie Katshir, Jamari Buddin, Abdul Carter, Keon Wylie, Dominic DeLuca, Jesus, who might have to take the wheel at some point
Defensive Tackle: PJ Mustipher, Coziah Izzard
Mustipher and Izzard are locked in, but, if Diaz is anything like Pry, this unit will rotate plenty throughout the year. Hakeem Beamon is another player who missed 2021, so don’t be surprised if he ends up being starter two and a half. He, and Zane Durant, may end up relieving the starters most often.
But again, this unit will rotate plenty, so there will be enough snaps to go around.
Others to watch: D’Von Ellies, Jordan van den Berg, Hakeem Beamon, Zane Durant
Defensive End: Adisa Isaac, Nick Tarburton
Another pair that’s already locked in, Isaac was slated to start in 2021 before being injured, and the latter started in 2021 already.
Adding Demeioun Robinson from Maryland improves the depth, and with Dani Dennis-Sutton, you could be seeing the future of the position take the stage early. Another name to watch is Smith Vilbert, who, in a clear departure of norm, has chosen two last names instead of your typical two first name approach. He should see time in the rotation as well.
Others to watch: Dani Dennis-Sutton, Demeioun Robinson, Amin Vanover, Smith Vilbert