The Reasons to be Confident, and Wary, About Penn State's Defense
Here's a deceiving stat regarding Penn State's 2020 defense: It lost seven starters. That suggests a rebuild, which certainly isn't true.
All seven of Penn State's projected new defensive starters played in every game last season, adding not just depth but serious playmaking ability. As a result, Penn State should field not only its most athletic defense in recent years but also one of its most experienced. Even without Micah Parsons and Yetur Gross-Matos from the group that allowed just 16 points per game last season.
That's important for a defense that faces two of the Big Ten's most prolific offenses, in Indiana and Ohio State, during the first two weeks. Both averaged 30+ points and 430+ yards per game last season and delivered two of the four highest-scoring games against Penn State.
So will the Lions be ready for that two-game jolt to start the season? They should be. And maybe they'll be even better than last year.
How? Here's a look.
What prompted coach James Franklin to call his linebackers a "strength," despite losing Parsons? Two primary reasons: athleticism and versatility.
Penn State's starting trio of Jesse Luketa, Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith are agile 240-pound players who move well to the ball. Luketa moved back outside to replace Parsons, where defensive coordinator Brent Pry said he's ready to "take ownership of the defense."
"He's an animal right now, man," Pry said.
Brooks, playing inside, and Smith drew similar raves, particularly, who could be Penn State's next All-American linebacker. Plus all three have experience at each position.
Further, with depth behind them, the linebackers will be a defensive asset even though they'll most certainly miss Parsons' ability to change games.
"You never want to lose players," Franklin said, "but we feel like that's a position of strength for us and we're excited about what those guys are going to be able to do for us."
Another 40-sack season? It's possible
Penn State has posted five consecutive 40-sack seasons for the first time in school history, getting 45 last year. That threshold will be much more difficult to reach in a 10-game season, particularly since the Lions lost three of their top-5 sack leaders in Gross-Matos, Parsons and Robert Windsor.
So who makes up the difference? Defensive ends Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh combined for 11 last year and are poised to make an even bigger impact. Smith and Brooks have pass-rush chops as well, as do some of Penn State's defensive backs in blitz situations.
But Pry said he wants to develop his pass rush primarily through the defensive line.
"One of the questions you always ask is, 'Can you get there with four [pass-rushers]?'" Pry said. "I feel like we’ll be able to. Hopefully, we check that again and feel good about rushing four. We’ve got some things we worked through this offseason, some things to these spread teams that I think will help us where we can grow not just as coaches but in our scheme."
Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said he considers returning starter Tariq Castro-Fields to be the "lockdown corner" a championship defense needs. Penn State still is looking for that breakthrough in having a defensive back drafted in the first round. With a huge season, Castro-Fields could test that market.
Further, safety Lamont Wade needed another season to showcase himself to NFL scouts. Wade has plenty of seasoning and is a standout run-stopper. By upgrading his coverage skills, he'll certainly upgrade his draft stock.
Loaded at cornerback
Pry and Smith have plenty of options at cornerback, with a young group that gained plenty of experience last year. Keaton Ellis, Joey Porter Jr. and Marquis Wilson each played at least 10 games.
Wilson was a ballhawk, with two interceptions and three forced fumbles, while Ellis is a likely starting contender. And Pry raved about Porter Jr., who said recently that he feels so much more confident than last season.
"I love what Joey Porter's doing," Pry said. "There won't be a longer guy in the [Big Ten] who moves like he does."
With them, Pry not only can rotate but also is free to play more five- and six-defensive back sets. That will help against big-throwing teams, like Indiana and Ohio State.
Penn State had so much planned for Parsons, maybe the most versatle defensive player has had in decades. Who takes over games now the way Parsons did in the Cotton Bowl? Is that a commodity that can be shared?
Pry spent his offseason studying Penn State's big-play lapses last year, notably the 11 that Minnesota hung on his defense. The good thing there is, Minnesota's offensive coordinator (Kirk Ciarrocca) now is Pry's co-worker.
Further, Penn State has some promising players at defensive tackle (Hakeem Beamon and Judge Culpepper are on the rise) but needs to develop some interior dominance quickly. Antonio Shelton is a returning starter, and PJ Mustipher has experience, but the duo needs to be dominant.
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