The Top-10 Nittany Lions Who Need to Step Up in 2020: Nos. 6-4

By Nick Polak on October 21, 2020 at 8:00 am
Sep 29, 2018; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (5) during the second quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium. Ohio State defeated Penn State 27-26.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With the season opener less than a week away, it's time for us to take one final look over the depth chart and find the players that NEED to step up if Penn State is to make good on championship aspirations this fall. Today, we take a look at numbers 6-4 on that list.

If you missed it, check out numbers 10-7 on our list.

No. 6 - JaQuan Brisker, Safety

Penn State's defense was very strong a year ago, but one thing that was missing on the back-end was a ball-hawking safety. Garrett Taylor was a solid tackler with solid instincts and Lamont Wade proved capable of being a playmaker, but opposing quarterbacks didn't have too much to fear when it came to trying to take the top off of the defense. That should change in 2020 with Brisker.

It took the former Lackawanna C.C. star a bit to get fully in-tune with the defense a year ago (which was to be expected) but he showed an ability to create turnovers that this unit badly needs. If Brisker can make the opposing offense hesitate tossing it deep for fear of being picked off, even if just for a moment, he will be doing his job. Just as a consistent pass-rush makes the secondary's job easier, a zone-eraser like what Brisker could become makes the pass rush's job much easier.

No. 5 - Brandon Smith, SAM Linebacker

Smith made his presence known a year ago with a hit that briefly sent his opponent through space and time.

Now, the former five-star will step into a full-time role and replace Cam Brown. In terms of athleticism, Smith may only be bested on the roster by Jayson Oweh. The Virginia native is essentially Master Chief in a football helmet, patrolling the field like he's hunting down grunts. As with any talented youngster, however, his early success will be determined by how well he proves to understand the defensive scheme. His natural talent will take over in most cases, but even those most talented experience growing pains (after all, even Micah Parsons had some freshman hiccups).

However, with Parsons out of the picture, this Penn State defense needs someone to step up in his place. Smith has the chops to do just that.

No. 4 - Tariq Castro-Fields, Cornerback

All of a sudden, Castro-Fields is the old head in the cornerback room. Though it still feels like the former blue-chipper just finished signing his letter of intent, he is the elder statesman in a position room full of youth. He won't simply be relied upon for leadership, however, as Brent Pry's defense needs him to ascend to the role of a true shutdown cornerback for this team to reach its potential.

The Nittany Lion defense has been at its best over the years when it can count on its top corner to neutralize the opposition's top target (as it goes with most teams). Ohio State has shown first-hand how beneficial it is to have a top talent taking away half of the field, and while Castro-Fields has shown flashes of being able to be that type of player, he needs to make good on those flashes in 2020.

He has the size, the speed, the demeanor, and the hands. In fact, he looked like he was becoming the team's best defensive back in 2019 before sustaining an injury that hobbled him for the latter half of the season. If he can rediscover that form and establish TCF Island, Joey Porter Jr., Keaton Ellis, Marquis Wilson, and the other youngsters will have a much easier job on the other side of the field.