Despite relying heavily on freshmen and first-year starters, the Penn State defense put together another solid season. With relatively little turnover, Brent Pry's unit is in prime position to establish itself as not only one of the top defenses in the conference but in the nation.
Let's take a look at what the 2019 defense could look like.
Defensive ends: Yetur Gross-Matos, Shane Simmons
Yetur Gross-Matos became a star in 2018. He led the team with 20 tackles for loss and eight sacks and only got better as the season wore on. With Shareef Miller gone, YGM will command a lot more attention but if he plays half as well as he did this season, he'll put himself in good position to be a high pick in next years draft.
Simmons went into last season with high expectations, but a training camp injury kept him sidelined for a good chunk of the year. He's a very athletic edge rusher who is no slouch against the run. Shaka Toney and he will probably split reps 50-50, but I think Simmons will be the one out there for the opening snap. Toney specializes in rushing the passer on obvious passing downs (though he also made great strides against the run in 2018).
Backups: Toney, Daniel Joseph, Jayson Oweh, Nick Tarburton, Adisa Isaac, Hakeem Beamon
Defensive Tackle: Robert Windsor, PJ Mustipher
This group suffered a pretty substantial blow when Kevin Givens announced his decision to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft. Regardless, Robert Windsor should be able to build off of a strong junior season. He plays with a relentless motor and will be more comfortable in his second year as a starter (though he does need to find a way to cut down on penalties). PJ Mustipher played very well for a true freshman. Highly regarded out of his high school, he could make a Gross-Matos-esque jump from year one to year two and give Penn State a fearsome front four that rivals any other in the Big Ten.
Backups: Antonio Shelton, Ellison Jordan, Fred Hansard, Damion Barber, Judge Culpepper, Aeneas Hawkins
Linebacker: Cam Brown, Jan Johnson, Micah Parsons
At long last, Micah Parsons is a starting linebacker. Not only did he lead the team in tackles as a freshman, but he also did so while only starting one game. He'll break the 100 tackle mark this season without question. Jan Johnson will be back to lead the defense. He's not the best athlete but he knows the defense inside and out and should be able to hold off some talented young players vying for his job. I foresee a dynamic with Johnson and Brandon Smith that's similar to the one Parsons and Koa Farmer had in 2018. Still, don't sleep on Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa in the middle, both of whom have been praised many times by the coaching staff. Cam Brown will have to sit out the first half of the Idaho game after a targeting penalty against Kentucky, but he should maintain his starting outside linebacker spot for his senior year.
Backups: Jarvis Miller, Ellis Brooks, Charlie Katshir, Jesse Luketa, Brandon Smith, Lance Dixon
Cornerback: Tariq Castro-Fields, John Reid
TCF has been criminally underrated during his first two seasons. The interceptions aren't exactly there, but he was tied for third on the team with seven pass breakups, despite only playing in certain packages. I'm very excited to see what he does as a full-time starter.
We saw a resurgent John Reid in the second half of 2018. The defensive back looked comfortable again and was making the kind of plays he wasn't when the season began. Even with the loss of Oruwariye, the Penn State secondary could take a big step forward next season.
Backups: Zech McPhearson, Donovan Johnson, DJ Brown, Trent Gordon, Keaton Ellis, Marquis Wilson
Safeties: Garrett Taylor, Lamont Wade
Garrett Taylor had a fantastic first season as a starter. A former corner, he showed great coverage skills, while also proving to be a sure tackler. His 71 tackles were good for third on the team.
Opposite of him, I expect Lamont Wade to take the next step. He's had an entire calendar year to adjust to safety after moving over from corner, so he should feel more comfortable. Jonathan Sutherland and JUCO transfer Jaquan Brisker will make for some good competition, but it's Wade's speed and coverage ability that ultimately should win him the job.
Backups: Ayron Monroe, John Petrishen, Jonathan Sutherland, Jaquan Brisker, Tyler Rudolph, Joey Porter Jr.
To read our Way-Too-Early Offensive Preview, click here.