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Projecting Penn State's Starting Defense

The Lions' defense underwent major offseason changes. Here's what it will look like Sept. 1 at Purdue.
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Penn State's defense underwent some major offseason change, losing two All-Americans, two starting linebackers and its longtime defensive coordinator.

But Manny Diaz arrived with a plan to develop an aggressive, turnover-minded unit that will hinge on some exciting young talent. Though the Lions return five defensive starters, two of whom started every game, they will build rotations around that young talent.

First, though, let's break down the potential starting lineup for Penn State's opener Sept. 1 at Purdue. And check out our look at the starting offense.

Defensive end: Chop Robinson

Robinson played linebacker as a true freshman at Maryland last year, so he has a learning curve to work through. But head coach James Franklin said he expects Robinson to be a "high-impact, low-maintenance" player. That's high praise.

Defensive tackle: PJ Mustipher

Mustipher was an All-Big Ten selection last year despite playing a little more than five games. When healthy, Mustipher is an All-America candidate and commands an interior presence that Penn State desperately missed last season.

Defensive tackle: Dvon Ellies

Hakeem Beamon, who missed last season for team reasons, has some catching up to do, though he'll be in play here soon. Meanwhile, Ellies is a 6-1, 302-pound tackle who played in every game last season and started the Outback Bowl. He made 1.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries and will give Penn State a sizable interior presence. Ellies went to Maryland's McDonogh High, as did Mustipher.

Defensive end: Adisa Isaac

Isaac ultimately should take over full-time, though he might not get the opening-day nod (that might go to returning starter Nick Tarburton). An injury prevented Isaac from playing last season, which he also was a projected starter. Isaac might have the most upside at the position this season, but freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton will garner some reps as well.

Linebacker: Curtis Jacobs

Penn State's most experienced linebacker is shifting from the Sam spot to Will, where he can deploy his speed laterally and closer to the line of scrimmage. Jacobs is the only linebacker with more than two starts. He's the centerpiece of the unit and potentially Penn State's third starter from McDonogh High.

Linebacker: Tyler Elsdon

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The competition at middle linebacker between Elsdon and Kobe King will continue through the season. Elsdon is a year ahead of King, a redshirt freshman, which will benefit him early in the season. Both will play, though.

Linebacker: Jonathan Sutherland

The sixth-year senior and special teams captain has played in the secondary most of his career. But he feels like a linebacker at heart and should make a natural transition to the Sam spot. Sutherland also could swing between linebacker and secondary roles depending on the situation.

Cornerback: Joey Porter, Jr.

Porter wants to become the first Penn State defensive back drafted in the first round. His length and athleticism will dazzle scouts. Now, Porter must unleash the elite college cover corner that lives inside him.

Cornerback: Kalen King

King was a standout of the 2021 freshman class and is ready to assume a starting role, though Franklin has offered Johnny Dixon's name as a camp standout. With Daequan Hardy and Marquis Wilson returning as well, Penn State has one of the best collection of corners in the Big Ten.

Safety: Ji'Ayir Brown

Brown's decision to return was among the defense's most important offseason actions. He's one of the Big Ten's best safeties and will run Penn State's defense.

Safety: Keaton Ellis

This spot has plenty of contenders, including sophomore Jaylen Reed and redshirt freshman Zakee Wheatley. They'll play, but Ellis gets the starting nod for the opener based on his experience. This secondary, however, will rotate plenty of players and likely will employ three safeties on occasion.

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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.