2018 Penn State Season Preview: Cornerbacks

By Matthew Filipovits on August 22, 2018 at 8:43 am
Penn State has the chance to have the best group of corners in the conference.
Adriana Lacy - Roar Lions Roar

Like every other position on defense, Penn State is looking to replace a lot of production at cornerback. Even though they lose both starters, this group seems very familiar. Amani Oruwariye has played a lot of football for James Franklin, and John Reid's return is a welcome sight. The two of them haven't played all that much together, but seem to be the perfect complement to one another.

With two veteran leaders and a lot of young talent behind them, the cornerback room doesn't have as many question marks as some other positions. We know they will be good. Can they be great?

Last year

Discounting some late-game meltdowns, the Nittany Lions had a solid secondary in 2017. They allowed 211.5 passing yards per game, which was top-50 in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten. Grant Haley and Christian Campbell both picked off two passes and defended nine. Haley was an absolute snub from the All-Conference teams, but has had a solid camp with the Giants, while Campbell was a late round selection in Arizona.

John Reid's injury left the third corner spot wide open and Amani Oruwariye took advantage. He led the team with four picks, and looked the best all-around athlete in the secondary at times. Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade played limited roles as true freshmen, earning more playing time as the season went on.

The Starters

  • No. 21 Amani Oruwariye (Gs/Sr., 6'1, 201 lbs.)
  • No. 29 John Reid (Sr/Jr., 5'10, 185 lbs.)

Oruwariye was Penn State's most underrated player last season. As mentioned above he led the defense in interceptions in a limited role, and was second on the team with seven passes defended. He was named second-team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media for his play. At 6'1 he has great length on the outside. His long arms allow him to make up ground if he gets beat off the first step and occasionally rises over receivers to make a play on the ball.

Although he's not the biggest guy, John Reid plays a very physical brand of football. He racked up 35 tackles and five TFLs back in 2016, to go along with one interception and his team-leading seven passes defended. Reid is one of the smartest football players you will ever watch. He watches film so religiously, it sometimes looks like he knows what play was coming from the moment the offense gets set. Now that he's had an entire season to sit back and watch, he could take another step forward and be an All-Conference selection himself come September. Just as important, he has been full-go since camp got underway earlier this month.

The backups

  • No. 5 Tariq Castro-Fields (So./So., 6'0, 189 lbs.)
  • No. 14 Zech McPhearson (Jr./ So., 5'11, 184 lbs.)

I am the conductor of the Castro-Fields hype train. He played great as a true freshman behind three NFL-caliber players. He mainly played on obvious passing downs, resulting in just 10 tackles all season, but he did a great job making sure slot receivers couldn't get off the ball and release into the second and third levels. He finished the season with one pick, three passes defended, and one forced fumble. As he shifts into a bigger role for 2018, he can show exactly how much he improved after an entire year with the program. His emergence should allow Terry Smith to shift Reid into the slot in nickel situations, creating a very formidable group of defenders.

Zech McPhearson was a guy everybody wanted coming out of high school. He played a limited role last season but showed the staff enough for them to feel confident in moving Lamont Wade to safety. He finished 2017 with six total tackles and one pass defended. He was the defensive star of the spring game, showing a ton of athleticism and reading the quarterbacks really well. His role will undoubtedly increase and depending on what John Reid decides to do at season's end, could be in line to start in 2019.

The Reserves

  • No. 24 DJ Brown (So./Fr., 5'10, 177 lbs.)
  • No. 3 Donovan Johnson (So./Fr., 5'9, 186 lbs.)
  • No. 19 Trent Gordon (Fr./Fr., 5'11, 181 lbs.)
  • No. 20 Jabari Butler (Sr./Jr., 5'11, 183 lbs.)

DJ Brown and Donovan Johnson will be the first guys in when the game gets out of hand. They're both a bit undersized, but have tremendous upside because of their athleticism and knowledge of the defense. They will undoubtedly play a role on special teams, and if they show enough early in the year, could take on bigger roles as they get comfortable. Barring injury, Trent Gordon looks like a guy headed for a redshirt. He enrolled back in January and has a good amount of familiarity with the playbook along with some additional good weight, but Penn State just doesn't need to burn his redshirt. He'll get his chance in his four games before setting his sights on that third corner slot in 2019. Jabari Butler was a great JUCO player before transferring to Penn State and redshirting last season. He'll probably be a special teams guy, and if his speed is half as good as it's been hyped up to be, could replace Irvin Charles or Nick Scott as a punt gunner.