Penn State's defense has been one of the best in the Big Ten for the past few years and with a handful of starters back for another year, that should again be the case. Still, some questions loom large as we head into the summer.
Let's breakdown some of the biggest questions facing each position group heading into the 2020 season.
DEFENSIVE END: THE TOP FOUR GUYS SEEM SET, IS THAT ENOUGH TO KEEP EVERYONE FRESH AND HEALTHY?
This unit has been the crown jewel of Penn State's defense for the better part of a decade, but all of the sudden things are looking pretty thin. Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, Jayson Oweh, and Adisa Isaac are the only guys who have seen decent minutes, and while those four are all impact players, things could get shaky if injuries pile up.
John Scott Jr. needs at least one more guy to force his way into the rotation, but there's no clear heir. Nick Tarburton didn't appear in any games in 2019, even after playing in two games during his redshirt year. Redshirt freshman Smith Vilbert was always going to be a long-term project, meaning the burden may fall on a true freshman. Early enrollee Bryce Mostella is an option, but he lost valuable time after his first semester on campus was cut short and has a lot of filling out to do. Aliquippa native Zuriah Fisher played defensive end in high school, but the staff also likes him at linebacker. At 6'3/255, he's the most physically ready to make an impact and maybe the most logical option.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: WITH THE NECESSARY DEPTH FINALLY IN PLACE, IS THIS UNIT SET UP TO BECOME A TEAM STRENGTH?
Penn State's been able to cover up a lot of depth issues over the years with JUCO guys and converted defensive ends, but the Nittany Lions finally have more than a few true interior defensive lineman at their disposal. Antonio Shelton is back and should once again be the heart and soul of the unit. PJ Mustipher, who out-snapped Shelton last year, seems primed for a breakout year. Fred Hansard had flashes of greatness last year and Judge Culpepper should only get better entering his third year in the program. Those four give James Franklin and Co. as good of a unit as they've ever had.
LINEBACKER: IF TEAMS OPT TO JUST RUN AWAY FROM MICAH PARSONS, WILL A UNIT REPLACING TWO STARTERS BE READY TO UP THEIR GAME?
Though replacing two starters, linebacker should be the strongest position on the Penn State defense. A big reason for that is Micah Parsons, who offensive coordinators will have to gameplan around in a similar way to what teams did with Chase Young last year. Parsons is going to stuff the stat sheet, but the other two linebackers will have to be ready for a lot of action as teams try to limit Parsons' impact.
Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith, and Jesse Luketa are expected to battle it out for the starting spots, with all three boasting a good amount of experience. Though none have started games, they've all been on the field in big situations and have all proved they can more than hold their own.
CORNERBACK: WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT FROM THE UNDERCLASSMEN?
Penn State has relied heavily on young corners for years, but this current crop of underclassmen corners could be special. Keaton Ellis got noticeably better as the season went on, while Marquis Wilson showed some phenomenal ball skills. Going forward, those two should push Donovan Johnson for the starting job opposite Tariq Casto-Fields. Even if they're unable to supplant him, both could spell TCF or Johnson at any time with no drop-off. For a unit that's been picked apart in countless big games, having that kind of depth has remarkable value.
SAFETY: IN A POSITION ROOM FILLED WITH FORMER CORNERS, CAN BIG PLAYS BE HELD TO A MINIMUM?
Penn State has a safety room built to stop the pass. Lamont Wade's ball skills have never been in question and his willingness to stop the run helped him become one of the Big Ten's top safeties last year. Jaquan Brisker played a huge for Penn State in obvious passing downs last year, so you know the staff has a lot of confidence in him. Brisker tied for the team lead in interceptions last year, despite not starting a game. Those kind of natural coverage skills will be a major asset as he sees an uptick in snaps. Additionally, playing alongside a cornerback room filled with talent, a lot of pressure should come off the safeties as they look to limit the number of big plays.