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Evaluating Penn State's Plan at Defensive End

The Nittany Lions' pass rush takes on a new look this season. Here are five players to watch.

Penn State already faced the prospect of replacing three starters on the defensive line, not to mention its top four ends, this season. And now with end Adisa Isaac injured, one of the potential replacements likely is out for the year.

Penn State's defense relies extensively upon a deep line rotation, which means it has some development to accomplish up front before the season begins Sept. 4 at Wisconsin.

The Lions have a depth chart of untested ends, none of whom made a sack or tackle for loss last season, and have made a few moves to shore the position. The puzzle is unfinished but has some valuable pieces.

Who are the top contenders? Here are five defensive ends to watch for Penn State.

Jesse Luketa

The 2020 starting linebacker is crosstraining at end, where he could see most of his playing time this season. Luketa brings an intriguing versatility to the position.

"There's some things that we can do with packages to take advantage of that, where people aren't sure whether he's playing a linebacker in our scheme or a defensive end," Penn State coach James Franklin said, "and how they're going to account for him in the running game or how they're going to account for him in pass protection."

Nick Tarburton

Having fought injuries in his three years at Penn State, Tarburton is ready to be a contributor. He's strong, having benched 375 pounds during winter workouts, and feeling confident.

"I’m a big Nick fan," defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. "He’s had some unfortunate circumstances with some injuries over the years that kept everyone from knowing what we know about him. He’s not just a very good defensive end prospect, but he’s one of the best leaders in our unit. We’re looking for a big season out of Nick."

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Arnold Ebiketie

The Temple transfer's decision grows more important for the Lions. Ebiketie, a fifth-year senior, led Temple in sacks (4), tackles for loss (8.5) and forced fumbles (3) last season. Penn State hopes for that kind of production from Ebiketie.

"He’s not just a talented guy, but also an intelligent football player that has picked up our scheme and our system very well," Pry said.

Smith Vilbert

A name to remember. The redshirt sophomore, who has played in six games the past two seasons, is poised to make a bigger contribution. Pry even drew a comparison between Vilbert and a former Penn State standout end.

"Smith has similar qualities to Yetur Gross-Matos," Pry said. "He has a basketball background, is very athletic and has good size. Smith’s finally turning the corner. He's really a football player for the first time, not a basketball player playing football."

Zuriah Fisher

Penn State recruited the 6-3, 260-pound Fisher with linebacker and end in mind. Pry said that Fisher has shown a "great motor" and eagerness in his transition to end.

"Zuriah is 260-plus pounds right now and still looks somewhat skinny, with really long arms," Franklin said. "He's gotten great in the weight room, and we're expecting big things from him."

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