A Way-Too-Early Look at the 2020 Penn State Defense

By Matthew Filipovits on January 28, 2020 at 8:30 am
Oct 19, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Micah Parsons (11) reacts to a defensive play against the Michigan Wolverines during the second quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
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Penn State's defense has carried them to victories over the past few years but also has been a big reason for some losses. Penn State's 2020 defense is a bit under-experienced but is loaded with talent and depth that should help eliminate some late-game collapses.

Yesterday, we took a way-too-early look at the 2020 Penn State offense. Let's do the same for the other side of the ball.

Defensive ends: Shaka Toney, Jayson Oweh

The position group received a big boost with Shaka Toney's return. Once looked at as nothing more than a pass-rush specialist, he evolved into one of the conference's most complete defenders. Jayson Oweh should be on every breakout candidate list heading into his third year with the program. He showcased his tremendous athleticism in a limited role last season and will only get better with experience. He has the inside track to start in 2020.

Shane Simmons and Adisa Isaac should make up the second pairing, but there are a lot of question marks outside of that. Daniel Joseph has entered the transfer portal and Nick Tarburton didn't appear in any games last season after redshirting in 2018. Smith Vilbert is considered a long term project, and the other three freshmen are major question marks. Zuriah Fisher could play either linebacker or end at this level, but the staff may need him along the line this season for some added depth.

Backups: Shane Simmons, Adisa Isaac, Nick Tarburton, Smith Vilbert, Bryce Mostella, Amin Vanover, Zuriah Fisher

Defensive tackles: PJ Mustipher, Antonio Shelton

Despite starting just one game last season, Mustipher ranked second on the team in snaps last season among defensive tackles and was on the field for over 45% of Penn State's plays. Now a full-time starter, he should become the next great Nittany Lion force in the middle. Antonio Shelton is the heart of the defensive line, so having him back for another year should do wonders for a young position group.

Fred Hansard was able to ease himself along after coming back from a pretty serious leg injury, while Judge Culpepper also saw his role increase as his redshirt freshman season went on. Aeneas Hawkins had to bulk up a good deal, but he may be ready to contribute in 2020. Hakeem Beamon, D'Von Ellis, Cole Brevard, and Coziah Izzard should all battle for regular snaps with the third team.

Backups: Fred Hansard, Judge Culpepper, Damion Barber, Aeneas Hawkins, Hakeem Beamon, D'Von Ellies, Joseph Darkwa, Cole Brevard, Coziah Izzard, Fatorma Mulbah, Brandon Taylor

Linebackers: Jesse Luketa, Ellis Brooks, Micah Parsons

Folks, this could very easily be the best linebacker room in the country. Micah Parsons introduced himself to the nation and Cotton Bowl and now has an entire season ahead of his as an encore. Jesse Luketa has waited two years to crack the starting lineup, while Ellis Brooks has been one of Penn State's most underrated players the past two seasons.

Brandon Smith gained some valuable experience as a true freshman and can play all three positions. He could very well play his way into a starting role in the preseason. Lance Dixon was originally a green light when the season began, but the staff quickly changed their plan after determining there weren't enough snaps to go around. Charlie Katshir, Curtis Jacobs, and Tyler Elsdon give the Nittany Lions another three rock-solid options should injuries begin to pile up.

Backups: Brandon Smith, Lance Dixon, Charlie Katshir, Curtis Jacobs, Tyler Elsdon

Cornerbacks: Tariq Castro-Fields, Keaton Ellis

TCF's return is a big boost for a unit that was plagued by injuries last season. Keaton Ellis impressed as a true freshman and should thrive in an increased role. Marquis Wilson came on very strong towards once the staff decided to burn his redshirt, he could be the breakout star of the unit. Donovan Johnson has been injured for much of his Penn State career but has impressed when he is healthy. 

Trent Gordon took on a much bigger role than expected last season, which should pay dividends going forward. Joey Porter Jr. still doesn't have a true position and could switch to safety, but he can give Brent Pry some good minutes. 

Backups: Marquis Wilson, Donovan Johnson, Trent Gordon, Joey Porter Jr., Daequan Hadry, DJ Brown, Joseph Johnson

Safeties: Lamont wade, Jaquan Brisker

Lamont Wade impressed in his first season as a starter, showing off some great versatility and tackling skills. Jaquan Brisker showed some great ball skills, tying for the team lead in interceptions.

Jonathan Sutherland has been a special teams staple for the past two seasons, but this is his first real opportunity to take on a bigger role at his position. Tyler Rudolph, Ji'Ayir Brown, and Enzo Jennings could all realistically factor in, with the redshirt freshman Rudolph being the most likely candidate to take on a bigger role.

Backups: Jonathan Sutherland, Tyler Rudolph, Ji'Ayir Brown, Enzo Jennings

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