On the heels of back-to-back seasons with top-10 finishes, NY6 games, and playoff talk, it felt like Penn State might finally be in a position to buck the all-too-familiar trend of falling back to earth after a stellar year. Now six games into life without 12 senior starters and Saquon Barkley, it's pretty obvious that annual reloading is still slightly out of reach. The Nittany Lions have struggled at nearly every spot where starters were lost, except perhaps running back and tight end. Yesterday we broke down replacing lost production on offense, so today we're full-steam ahead with our examination of the defense.
While there are tweaks here and there which are easily identifiable to fix what ails the offense, make no mistake, Brent Pry's unit was decimated by graduation and injury. Seven of the top-10 tacklers from 2017 are gone, including six of the top seven.
I think play along the defensive line has perplexed many fans. Penn State returned its top five ends from a year ago (I'm pretty sure the staff never expected Torrence Brown to return). Then Ryan Buchholz had to retire due to an uncooperative back. While Buchholz wasn't a stat monster, totaling just 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks, he was the best and most versatile player in Sean Spencer's rotation. Using 2017 S&P+ numbers, Buchholz was the third-most successful defender on the entire team. Then Shane Simmons was injured in camp and the rotation went from healthy to thin in just a couple days.
Shareef Miller and Yetur Gross-Matos are elite players, in my opinion, but Shaka Toney had to be used more than was probably desirable early in the year, and Spencer had to give a ton of snaps to Daniel Joseph. While true freshmen Jayson Oweh and Nick Tarburton have excited coaches, both will likely end up redshirting. So YGM and Miller have played way more than they should and have faced fatigue late in games.
Add Buchholz to losing three of your top five defensive tackles to graduation, and suddenly you have zero experienced depth behind starters Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor. Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren, and Tyrell Chavis were all accomplished and better-than-given-credit-for as DTs. They ranked second, sixth, and eighth on the entire defensive in effectiveness, and they were first, second, and fourth in playing time at tackle. While Givens and Windsor more than held their own, they had to move from complementary to primary players (moreso for Windsor).
Givens was suspended to start the season, and gave way to redshirt freshman Fred Hansard. Well, Hansard is now out for the year, and fellow backup redshit sophomore Ellison Jordan hasn't played in weeks due to injury. So if you're counting, Penn State is down six of its top eight DTs from 2017. That's not a hole, that's a chasm. Up to the second team are redishirt sophomore Antonio Shelton and true freshman PJ Mustipher, with converted offensive guard CJ Thorpe and redshirt freshman Damion Barber rounding out the three-deep. If someone else gets hurt, you're looking at more true freshmen or walk-ons filling in.
Jason Cabinda, Brandon Smith, and Manny Bowen were the top-tackling linebackers in 2017. Through six games in 2017 they totaled 92 tackles and seven tackles for loss. Now if you want to talk about symmetry, be my guest, because through six games this year, Jan Johnson, Cam Brown, and Micah Parsons have 90 tackles and 6.5 TFL. Yes, Parsons (28) has more tackles than Koa Farmer (24) despite trailing him in playing time about 30/70. The freshman freak is probably a liability in pass coverage, but none of the starting LBs have shown to be particularly adept there. I vote that he play more. While Johnson leads the team in tackles, he's rushed off the field in any passing situation. This echos the concerns I had in August.
If you recall my recent article on Garrett Taylor, it describes marginal efficiency of defenders as a way to gauge their value. The average marginal efficiency for college linebackers is -3 percent (lower is better). Currently, Parsons (-13.1 percent) is the only LB playing better-than-average. Johnson (+2.9 percent), Farmer (+5.8 percent), and Brown (+7.1 percent) are performing below the curve. So while the production numbers are extremely similar, where the tackles are taking place on the field is not great.
Through six games, Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Christian Campbell, and Grant Haley totaled 91 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 21 passes defended, and six interceptions. Keeping in mind that you don't want your DBs making a ton of tackles in the open field, Garrett Taylor, Nick Scott, Tariq Castro-Fields, Amani Oruwariye, and John Reid have combined for 113 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 28 passes defended, and four INTs. These stats are a bit buoyed by the Michigan State game, as Nittany Lion defenders got their hands on 16 (!) Brian Lewerke passes, but were only able to muster one interception.
While marginal efficiency stats are new to S&P+ this year, I have to think Marcus Allen would be well-rated. Taylor has stepped into his shoes admirably, and is becoming an elite defender. Through six games, Taylor's marginal efficiency is -3.6 percent (average for a safety is +20 percent). In fact, other than defensive linemen and Parsons, Taylor is the only Penn State defender in negative numbers. Scott, on the other hand, has struggled (+24.5 percent). I'm not sure his play warrants 84 percent of snaps like he saw against Michigan State.
Overall, the cornerbacks have been solid-to-good. Oruwariye (+12.1 percent), TCF (+16.1 percent), and John Reid (+9.5 percent) are all playing above an average college cornerback (+23.3 percent marginal efficiency). But just like the wide receivers, things would look a lot better if they held on the ball. Reid played his best game of the year against MSU, so hopefully he's put the early-season rust behind him.