Penn State's Top Spring Battles - Defense

By Craig Fritz on April 12, 2019 at 9:30 am
Penn State Safety Lamont Wade
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
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The 2019 Penn State defense doesn't have quite as much production to replace as the offense, but there are still major contributors who are no longer in the mix. Here's a look at four position battles in the spring that could shape the Nittany Lions heading to fall camp.

4 - middle linebacker

Jan Johnson started all 13 games for Brent Pry at one of the most coveted positions in college football, the defensive boss at Linebacker U. Johnson was solid, notching 72 tackles and one pick. He was rotated out frequently when Penn State went to its nickel defense with a fifth DB. The question here is will any of the explosive, blue-chip youth take playing time away from the senior-to-be? Ellis Brooks came on at the end of the year and flashed in the bowl game. Could Jesse Luketa or five-star Brandon Smith be too good to sit? Good problems to have for Pry.

3 - the other defensive end

Shareef Miller turned 15 TFLs and 7 sacks into an early NFL departure. That leaves true junior freak Yetur Gross-Matos as the returning sack master on Sean Spencer's line. Though fear not, Spencer has a stable of ends ready to duplicate Miller's production. Redshirt Junior Shaka Toney probably has the inside track here, but you simply cannot discount redshirt freshman Jayson Oweh. The kid is cut from granite and can reportedly fly. With honed technique, it will be amazing to watch Spencer turn him loose. Junior Daniel Joseph saw more time than I expected last year, and should again fill an important depth role. Look for redfreshmen Nick Tarburton and true frosh Adissa Isaac there too. Shane Simmons remains a candidate for production, but my guy can simply not get healthy enough to be a dependable contributor. Here's hoping that changes for 2019.

2 - the other safety

The emergence of Garrett Taylor is absolutely one of my favorite things from the 2018 season. He clearly has a starting spot locked up. The competition for the starting role next to him is one of the more intriguing storylines in Happy Valley. Though, again, DB coaches Tim Banks and Terry Smith have a lot of athleticism and skill to work with. Following the Citrus Bowl, Smith named true junior Lamont Wade as the man to beat for the spot vacated by Nick Scott. After flirting with the transfer portal, Wade is back to claim the role. It will be interesting to see how the staff view redshirt sophomore Jonathan Sutherland and incoming JUCO transfer Jaquan Brisker. It's pretty clear that those four are likely to fill out the two-deep once Brisker arrives this summer. True freshman Tyler Rudolph could see some snaps if there are injuries.

1 - the other defensive tackle

One of the bigger surprises of the offseason was the early departure of Kevin Givens. The junior tackle was a constant disruptive force, totaling 10.5 TFLs and 5 sacks while taking down the opposing running game with aplomb. Givens' play allowed fellow tackle Robert Windsor to have a breakout year with 11 TFLs and 7.5 sacks of his own. Now the contest to play next to the d-line's only senior-eligible player begins in earnest. The unit was hit hard by injuries in 2018, with Fred Hansard and Ellison Jordan missing huge chunks of the season. Look for junior Antonio Shelton and true sophomore PJ Mustipher to get the early looks while Hansard returns from a serious knee injury. While Shelton has the edge on experience, Mustipher is a legitimate stud who I predict will garner the majority of snaps and starts as 2019 wears on. One thing we know is the Spencer uses a heavy rotation along the line to keep his players fresh, so even depth players like Damion Barber, Judge Culpepper and Aeneas Hawkins need to be ready to roll.

Hit up the comments to share your biggest concerns for the 2019 Penn State defense!

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