Penn State fans are used to seeing tremendous defense year-in and year-out. Great defensive play in Happy Valley is about as dependable as hours-long lines at the Creamery on gamedays, students arriving near halftime of noon games and
After taking a look at reasons to be optimistic yet again about the defense this fall, today we took a hard look at where the trouble spots may pop up during the upcoming season.
The Great Unknown of the Defensive Line
Even though Penn State has been able to simply reload at defensive line over the years after, finding a way to replace Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel is quite a tall order. Nassib came out of nowhere to lead the nation in sacks, Johnson was one of the finest defensive tackles in all of college football, and Zettel became a folk hero at Penn State for his penchant of incredible and timely plays during his time in Happy Valley. Collectively, they create a massive void for an especially crucial position group.
While Penn State does have some exciting prospects who are preparing to take on a much larger role in 2016, it' completely unknown if the unit will be a strength or weakness this fall. Garrett Sickels is the lone returning starter on the DL, and will be expected to not only provide leadership at his position, but also to increase his productivity in his redshirt junior season. Torrence Brown has the freakish physical skills to become the next great DE at Penn State and could take a major step forward with an increased workload. Redshirt freshman Kevin Givens earned massive praise throughout spring ball, but is still undersized as a DT and has yet to take his first snap at Penn State.
The biggest unknown is whether this new crop of defensive linemen will be able to get in the backfield with a four man rush- something that Penn State has been able to do for years, which has helped bolster the entire defense. Without this ability, quarterbacks will have time to eventually find an open receiver, and plays that were stuffed in the backfield will result in positive yardage. The potential for greatness is there, but any team will ultimately struggle in the Big Ten without a stellar defensive line doing the dirty work in the trenches.
Lack of Depth at Linebacker
Penn State has an absolutely fantastic set of starting linebackers in Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White. However, there is quite a bit of drop-off following these three. Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper showed potential as true freshman, but will likely need another year of development before they're ready to step into the spotlight. Senior Von Walker is a heady and relentless player, but would likely struggle if he were forced into action as an every-down player.
Not only does Penn State lack experience at the position, depth is a major concern as well. While pulling in some incredible recruiting classes in recent years, the staff have whiffed on several of its top prospects at linebacker. These misses along the recruiting trail could have a major impact on Penn State's defense in 2016 and beyond.
Too Much Time on the Field
Penn State is finally making its way into the 21st Century with an uptempo offense that aims for 80-85 plays. We're all excited to see defenses gasping for air knowing that Saquon Barkley or Chris Godwin are destined to break a play for a long gain against a tired defense. But exactly what impact will this have on our defense?
Regardless of the success of the freshly installed offense, it will likely lead to much more time on the field for the defense. If things exceed expectations and the offense lights up the scoreboard, the team will have to return to the field in a hurry. If they struggle and have a few consecutive three-and-outs, the defense will inevitably be giving up points.
The defense just does not have the current depth, especially at linebacker, for the offense not to sustain drives throughout the game. While we are all welcoming the potential for a fast-paced, prolific offense, it's going to take some time before the team is truly able to outgun the competition if shootouts become the norm.