We're finally back talking about football and it feels so good. Even if it's fake spring football and we're still five months away, we'll take whatever we can get. Here are a few thoughts on the defense as we inch closer to the Blue/White Game.
Who replaces Givens and Miller?
Penn State lost Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller to the NFL. The guys in the clubhouse better be ready to go as their development will be key to the Lions' defensive success. Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney should get the most opportunities to replace Miller and start opposite Yetur Gross-Matos. Simmons has yet to put it all together in his time at Penn State and the former top-50 recruit could be facing his last chance to start and make his mark. Jayson Oweh could also surprise everyone if he puts it together fundamentally as he is undoubtedly the most athletic and explosive defensive end on the roster. At defensive tackle, Antonio Shelton and PJ Mustipher will likely be the top options at defensive tackle. Shelton is possibly the strongest player on the entire team and far more experienced, but Mustipher is the supremely talented and former coveted recruit. How Fred Hansard and Ellison Jordan come back from injuries has major implications for depth here.
Yes, the Lions still have Jan Johnson, and he performed very admirably in his first season as the starting MIKE linebacker. However, there appears to be a limitation on his athleticism and particularly his ability in coverage. This could create an opening for a few talented freshmen and sophomores to take that spot from him. Ellis Brooks will be a third-year player and showed supreme talent in coming down and laying a smackdown in the run game. Only a true sophomore, Jesse Luketa has been repeatedly praised for his play on the scout team and his leadership, which is important as the MIKE linebacker is looked at as the quarterback of the defense. Then comes five-star true freshmen Brandon Smith. If he is as talented as everyone thinks he is coming out of high school, he could simply be far too good to keep off the field. Smith enrolled early and should be plenty ready from a physical standpoint by the time the season rolls around.
One safety spot is already settled with Garrett Taylor returning to man center field. The other safety spot is anyone's guess. There are several physically talented options but development will be key here. Lamont Wade was pronounced the heir to Nick Scott's spot by coaches but almost transferred this offseason. He will absolutely not be handed this spot, and the competition will be fierce. Jonathan Sutherland is a heat-seeking missile and if the team truly values his ability in run defense, he could be the answer. Then there is early enrollee Tyler Rudolph and incoming JUCO transfer Jaquan Brisker. Brisker was the top JUCO safety in the country for good reason and if he had enrolled early, it'd be a pretty solid bet to pick him as the eventual winner of that starting spot.
Be sure to check out our spring questions for the offense.