While the Penn State defense is in somewhat of a rebuilding mode after losing the likes of Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel and Jordan Lucas, there's still plenty of reasons to be optimistic as we prepare for the 2016 season. I mean, it is Penn State after all, right? While we patiently await the new-look offense with plenty of hand-wringing over everything that has gone wrong in the past, hopefully we can sit back and assume Penn State will be among the best defenses in the Big Ten once again. Here are a few of the biggest reasons for optimism in 2016:
The Return of Nyeem Wartman-White
Nyeem Wartman-White showed constant improvement during his redshirt freshman and sophomore campaigns as a starter at outside linebacker. The 2015 season was supposed to be his true breakout year where he would emerge as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten and beyond after sliding to the middle linebacker spot to replace standout Mike Hull. Unfortunately, things did not quite pan out that way after Wartman-White's season was ended by a week one knee injury that placed the entire defense in disarray in what would become a blowout loss to Temple.
Now, Wartman-White is ready to show his immense talents in 2016. Wartman-White is among the hardest hitters on an overall very physical defense, and watching him routinely punish ball-carriers is a joy to watch. He also has fantastic closing speed and an excellent nose for the ball which allows him to fill gaps and regularly halt plays before they can really even get started. He is currently in a battle with junior Jason Cabinda to return to the middle (Cabinda started in Wartman-White's spot following the week one injury), and could ultimately return to his former spot on the outside. Wherever Wartman-White lines up in 2016, Penn State fans will be ecstatic to see number five back on the field and punishing opponents. Speaking of which...
We Are...Linebacker U.
Without hyperbole, Penn State may just have the nation's best trio of starting linebackers heading in 2016. In addition to Wartman-White rejoining the lineup, Penn State returns senior Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda, both standouts in their own right. Bell, who sports Lavar Arrington's number, reminds many of the Nittany Lion legend with his massive build and the highlight reel hits he delivers each week. He will be one of the most intense players in college football in 2016, and will soon wreak total havoc in opposing backfields as an outstanding blitzer off the edge. Cabinda was thrown into the fire to replace Wartman-White in the middle, and responded by leading the team in tackles and demonstrating the potential to be the next great to come out of Linebacker U. Now that he has valuable experience under his belt, expect to see a major leap in overall play as an upperclassman.
A Rising Secondary
For some time it looked as though Penn State's secondary would be in trouble thanks to some misses on the recruiting trail and the now-defunct sanctions. Even with the departure of Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams, Penn State has enough emerging talent to become an overall better unit in 2016.
Grant Haley and John Reid performed very well as underclassman, and both have potential to be shut-down cornerbacks as full-time starters for the next two seasons. They will be pushed by junior Christian Campbell has has already proven to have tremendous upside since playing beyond his years as a true freshman. Additionally, Garrett Taylor will be entering his first year of eligibility and many are speculating he could take the throne as Penn State's best cornerback at some point in the fall. Something tells me opposing quarterbacks will be taking too much time in the pocket trying to locate an open receiver this fall, hopefully ending with disastrous results for them.
The safeties appear to be set. Marcus Allen looked like a potential All-American as a true freshman, but took a step back as a sophomore. However, there's little doubt his play was impacted by a nagging shoulder injury throughout the season. As long as he's fully recovered, he could quickly become the best at his position in the Big Ten. Malik Golden returns for his senior season and could start opposite Allen, but will be pushed by the likes of Koa Farmer, Troy Apke, John Petrishen and Ayron Monroe- all heavily recruited underclassmen with an array of physical gifts who are just seeking the opportunity to prove themselves on the field.
Simply put, James Franklin has worked wonders in bringing big-time talent to the secondary, and 2016 should begin to demonstrate just how much talent resides in the back four for the Nittany Lions.