On the heels of yesterday's preview in which we discussed the challenges Penn State faces this spring in replacing Carl Nassib's production off the edge, we move the discussion today to replacing the All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year's brethren on the interior of the defensive line. Of course, there's this guy:
And you can't forget this guy:
In 2014, Anthony Zettel made his presence known as one of the best defensive lineman in college football. In 2015, he was the clear emotional leader of these Nittany Lions, showing unthinkable commitment and dedication in the wake of his father's untimely passing. And if we all considered Zettel one of the most disruptive forces in the country, the same needs to be said, at a bare minimum, for Austin Johnson. Johnson's interior play was outstanding, and he might have been the single best pure defensive tackle in college football. These two men, together with the aforementioned Nassib, formed the most talented defensive line in the country last year, a line reminiscent of the 2002 Nittany Lions squad that featured two dominant defensive tackles and a great edge rusher - Jimmy Kennedy, Anthony Adams, and Michael Haynes.
Like the 2003 Nittany Lions, the struggle is now in finding appropriate replacements as these three forces of nature take their talents to the National Football League. In 2003, Penn State struggled to find solid footing at both defensive tackle and defensive end, and felt compelled to cover several holes by putting the undersized but remarkably talented sophomore Tamba Hali in the interior. It was not a great year for the Nittany Lions at the line of scrimmage (or anywhere else for that matter). Can the 2016 Nittany Lions find the depth that the 2003 team lacked? We'll begin finding out this spring.
"Starters" is a pretty loose term with this group of players, and could basically include any number of players. At the nose, redshirt junior Parker Cothren is the most experienced of the group. The Huntsville, Alabama native appeared in all 13 games last season and put up decent numbers, but "most experienced" loses some meaning when you realize just how many reps Johnson, Zettel, and graduated reserve lineman Tarow Barney took on the interior last season. Cothren appears to be hampered this spring with some type of injury, so you might not see him at all. James Franklin also feels "really good" about redshirt freshman Robert Windsor, who will log his first game time after spending 2015 on the scout team. The team is "really excited" about him, for what it's worth.
At the three-technique, Redshirt sophomore Antoine White looks like a rotation lock, and unlike Cothren, you will see him this spring, The 6'2, 283 pound tackle from Millville, NJ was a consensus 3-star recruit out of high school, appeared in ten games and shared sacks with his teammates in three separate games. The staff is pleased with his development, particularly in the weight room, where he has trimmed down and is working on stacking muscle back on.
The "buzz of camp right now" is redshirt freshman Kevin Givens. Givens, a high school linebacker, flipped from his commitment to Pittsburgh late in the 2015 cycle and was expected to make his impact at defensive end. As a physical lineman who can quickly get off blocks in passing situations, he's expected to be disruptive at the 3-tech.
The rotation should be fairly deep this year and allow for the development of a significant number of players along the defensive line. Redshirt junior Curtis Cothran played a fair amount last season...at defensive end. Now, the 6'5, 262 pounder has been moved inside. For his part, Franklin is pleased with his development - he feared he would play too high, but those fears appear to have been alleviated for the most part. Cothran will get plenty of run in the Blue/White Game, but should be about 10-15 pounds heavier when you see him in the fall. That will be necessary if he's going to be a Big Ten player on the inside.
Two other players appear to have moved positions, but you wouldn't know from the depth chart. As we mentioned yesterday, Ryan Buchholz and Kam Carter are both listed at end but are expected to spend the vast majority of time at tackle. At 305 pounds, Carter already has the necessary size, but needs to work on refining his game. Buchholz, on the other hand, stands 6'6 and weighs 260 pounds. He needs to continue to add weight, but could also end up being a solid rotation contributor on game days. And don't sleep on Ryan Monk, the redshirt freshman walk-on from Dallas, PA, who has earned praise from Franklin already for his hard work. He's "not ready for prime time yet," but there are legitimate hopes for him to earn his way into the rotation.