The 2015 season was a good year on the outside for the Penn State Nittany Lions defense. Senior Trevor Williams and sophomore Grant Haley were starters with upside, and freshman John Reid was able to crack the rotation immediately and hold his own throughout Big Ten play.
Though the top three were healthy throughout the season, the unit did not emerge completely unscathed. Top reserve corner Christian Campbell missed the second half of his sophomore season with an undisclosed injury. In his place, Penn State's coaching staff opted to simply rely more heavily upon the Williams/Haley/Reid trio. Redshirt freshmen Amani Oruwariye and Daquan Worley did not see any action at corner outside of garbage time, nor did junior Jordan Smith.
Now a junior and sophomore respectively, Haley and Reid will return as starters. After a season-ending injury took down senior safety and slot cornerback Jordan Lucas, Haley took over slot cornerback duties for Penn State. Look for him to be in the mix there again in nickel situations in addition to his duties on the outside.
The Nittany Lions are losing a starter in Trevor Williams, who had 22 tackles and an interception in 2015. The good news is that Haley and Reid played just as much time as Williams last season, and both are well prepared to have starting roles. Both players had two interceptions on the season and were strong in coverage. Haley finished with 27 tackles, 9 pass deflections, and 7 pass breakups, while Reid contributed 18 tackles, 7 pass deflections, and 5 breakups. If both are healthy heading into the 2016 season, Penn State should be in good shape.
There is youth and talent behind these starters, but it is unproven. A fine example of this is Garrett Taylor. While Reid was a highly touted prospect who was able to make an immediate impact as a true freshman, Penn State actually had an even higher rated cornerback recruit in the 2015 class in Taylor. Taylor redshirted the 2015 season and is likely too talented to keep off the field no matter how well those in front him play. The question is where Taylor will end up. His skillset can work at both cornerback and safety, and with more certainty at corner on the 2016 depth chart, there is a decent chance the coaching staff elects to move Taylor to safety.
Either way, Campbell should be back as an important part of the rotation assuming there are no lingering effects from his injury. Nick Scott too will be in the mix at corner after switching from the crowded running back position. His position switch may make it an easier call for the coaching staff to move Taylor to the back end.
Worley transferred, and Smith is not in the mix for playing time after three years on the bench. I would also anticipate that freshmen Zech McPhearson and T.J. Johnson are likely redshirt candidates with the depth ahead of them at the position. That leaves the case of Oruwariye, a redshirt sophomore who flipped his 2014 commitment from Vanderbilt to Penn State when head coach James Franklin made the same move. Unlike Smith and Worley, Oruwariye did play in every game in 2015, but was relegated to special teams play.
There is uncertainty at a number of positions on Penn State's roster. Sitting here today, we are fortunate to have some positions of stability like cornerback.