Penn State's defense bounced back following a difficult 2013 season and rose to the level of the very best units in all of college football. After losing some talent, it's yet unseen if they can maintain the level of excellence from a year ago. If the coaching staff can find quality answers to the questions below, Penn State's defense should remain in fantastic shape and shut down offenses once again throughout the fall.
DE: Is this the biggest area for concern for the 2015 Nittany Lion defense?
Without a doubt, yes. Deion Barnes, C.J. Olaniyan and Brad Bars are all moving on from State College after providing heavy pressure in a renaissance year for the Penn State defense. Now the defense must move on and find replacements who must perform at a high level to make sure Penn State remains among the top defenses in the nation.
The leading candidates to start in week one are Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib, who both played well in rotational duty in 2014. Sickels especially has star potential as he entered Penn State among the top recruits in the nation with his selection of any major college program in the nation. The fact that he stuck with his commitment to the Nittany Lions following the announcement of the sanctions makes him even easier to cheer for. There is also plenty of hype for incoming freshman Torrence Brown, who may find himself in the starting lineup by the end of 2015. Sophomore Evan Schwan also has a season of meaningful playing time under his belt and will play a much more prominent role this fall.
There are questions about the defensive end position because of the overall level of inexperience, but there is plenty of promise. The group will need a few members to stand out quickly so the defense can continue to perform at a high level by applying regular pressure from a four man front. Fortunately for the developing players, they will be lining up next to perhaps the best starting defensive tackle duo in the nation. Speaking of which...
DT: How is anyone going to stop Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson?
I have no idea, and I'm just glad my job does not depend on me figuring it out. The strength of the Penn State defense will start up front with Zettel and Johnson. Zettel immediately exploded on the scene after making the transition from being a backup defensive end for two seasons. There were some doubts about Zettel's ability to perform at tackle because of his size, but he immediately silenced them with his performance that ranked among the top defensive players in the nation. He made plays whenever he saw the field as a freshman and sophomore, and somehow managed to play at a high level on a constant basis as a full-time starer.
Johnson soon found himself in Zettel's shadow, but improved each week throughout the season and was a dominant force by midseason. He particularly stood out the last few games of the season as he regularly found his way into the backfield to disrupt play after play. These two will elevate the play of the entire defense and will be causing nightmares for every backfield they face in 2015.
LB: Is Penn State’s next great linebacker currently on the roster?
Yes, and his name is Nyeem Wartman. The rising junior improved immensely in his second year as a starter and made a name for himself despite playing in the giant shadow of Mike Hull. He seems more than ready to emerge as the next great at Linebacker U.
To consider Wartman's true value, think back to the Northwestern game where he was forced to sit out with a shoulder injury. While Penn State's defense performed admirably, they were far from their dominant selves. He constantly made plays all over the field, and delivered the bone-rattling hits that exemplified Penn State's physical and stingy defense. Wartman seems to be the obvious choice to slide over and take Hull's spot at inside linebacker, which will allow him to become the type of playmaker Penn State fans have grown accustomed to after a long line of greats who have played at the position over the years.
CB/S: Where is Jordan Lucas going to play next year, and how will that impact the way Penn State lines up on defense?
Based on the preliminary roster from spring ball, Lucas is moving to safety, where he will line up next to Marcus Allen. That is an amazing 1-2 punch at safety, the type that can compensate for any shortcomings by the team's cornerbacks.
This is a good thing, because it may take a little for the cornerback across from Trevor Williams to get used to playing regularly and matching up with a team's second-best receiver. Williams himself has improved every year ever since he started lining up at cornerback, and he should be able to handle the task of being a No. 1 corner, but if he doesn't, Penn State has plenty of options.
Christian Campbell and Grant Haley both looked pretty good in limited roles last year, and they should ideally be a little better this year. Does that mean that they -- or Da'Quan Davis, who may be good, or he may be bad, I don't know -- lineup opposite Williams? That's a huge question mark. Maybe Lucas slides down sometimes and plays corner, a la Adrian Amos. Perhaps John Reid or Garrett Taylor, the two ultra-talented incoming freshmen corners, impress over the summer and get some run in the secondary.
I'm willing to say that the battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite Williams is the most quietly massive subplot of the offseason, and it's something that you should definitely keep an eye on.