Projecting Penn State's Starting Defense

After a disappointing 2020, the Nittany Lions have plenty to prove defensively this season.
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Penn State did not have a good season defensively in 2020. More specifically, it had a dismal first half of the season.

The Lions allowed at least 30 points in each of their first five games, a stretch in which opponents averaged 36 points against them. Coverage lapses, missed tackles, defenders playing out of position, and a general lack of cohesion dragged down Penn State until the season's final month.

Coordinator Brent Pry said Penn State's defense wasn't "accountable" last year, something he moved quickly to correct this offseason.

"We've got to continue to build our identity as a defense," Pry said after the team concluded spring drills. "Part of that right now is accountability. We weren't very accountable last fall. Guys too often [were] not playing in the framework of the defense. That's on me, that's on the guys. We're all taking ownership and we're committed to being more accountable."

Penn State has the talent around which to build a defense that can contend for a Big Ten title. The Lions return seven starters, are loaded in the secondary and field one of the conference's rising stars at linebacker.

But how long will the defense need to calibrate? The early schedule (Wisconsin, Ball State, Auburn) affords no gentle runway. The Lions have to be ready for three very different offenses to start the season.

So what will the starting defense look like? The line certainly will look different, having lost three starters, including NFL draft picks Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney. It also might play fewer snaps in its base defense, considering the depth and talent in the secondary.

Here's our projection for the starting 11 for the season-opener at Wisconsin on Sept. 4. Check out our picks for the starting offense here.

Defensive end Adisa Isaac: Isaac played significantly in Penn State's rotation last year, making 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks. The sophomore has plenty of experience, playing in 20 games over two seasons, and is ready to take the next step as a dominant pass-rusher. Linebacker Jesse Luketa might see a few snaps here as well.

Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher: He's the heartbeat of Penn State's defense, particularly since fellow tackle Antonio Shelton and safety Lamont Wade moved on. Mustipher will set the emotional tone and be the technical voice. He's also primed to become an interior force, coming off an All-Big Ten season in which he made 35 tackles.

Defensive tackle Fred Hansard: Hansard will get most of the snaps alongside Mustipher, though Hakeem Beamon and transfer lineman Derrick Tangelo will figure into the rotation. Hansard is another player ready to assume a larger role, particularly if he can get into the backfield consistently. 

Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie: The Temple transfer made a remarkable transition during spring drills that went beyond assimilation. Ebiketie showed the coaches that he's ready to be a Big Ten starter. Fellow end Nick Tarburton, who fought through several years of injuries, is a player to watch here as well. 

Linebacker Curtis Jacobs: Head coach James Franklin said that Jacobs brings exceptional athleticism to the Sam spot, which requires the ability to track down backs and cover tight ends. He will replace Brandon Smith at this position, allowing Penn State to put its two best linebackers on the field together.

Linebacker Ellis Brooks: As the returning starter inside, Brooks led the Lions in tackles last season (60) and made some strong plays. He needs to work on his positioning but should be better. 

Linebacker Brandon Smith: Following his gradual improvement through 2020 and the offseason position switch, Smith is one of the defense's top players to watch. He'll be playing the Will spot, a box-linebacker position that favors his fierce tackling skills. 

Cornerback Joey Porter, Jr.: A third-team all-conference pick, Porter was Penn State's breakout young defensive player last year. He went from backup as a true freshman to the team's most consistent cornerback in 2020. Another promising freshman will follow him, as Kalen King promises to see plenty of playing time.

Safety Jaquan Brisker: The senior is considered among the nation's top returning safeties, one who can build a significant NFL draft resume. Brisker is exceptional against the run and can cover plenty of field in the secondary.

Safety Ji'Ayir Brown: A fellow Lackawanna College graduate with Brisker, Brown has the inside track to replace Wade. Brown's playing time increased last season until he essentially became the third safety. He and Brisker should work well together. Veteran safety Jonathan Sutherland and former cornerback Keaton Ellis could have a say about this position as well.

Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields: Limited to three games last season because of injury, Castro-Fields returned to provide a major boost to Penn State's defense. He and Porter could become the Big Ten's top cornerback duo through their combination of coverage skills and experience. Transfer cornerback Johnny Dixon looks to make an impact as well.

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