Last year this time, defensive line coach Sean Spencer was tasked with having to replace Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, two of Penn State’s most productive defensive tackles in recent memory. As expected, there were growing pains in September as the Nittany Lions relied upon the inexperience of Kevin Givens, Robert Windsor, and Tyrell Chavis. But as the season wore on, the interior of the defensive line improved, with the youthful “Wild Dogs” eventually becoming a strength of the team.
Now a year later, Penn State is sitting pretty at defensive tackle. Coach Chaos has five players returning from his three-deep, only having to replace Antoine White who opted to transfer to Albany.
With the way Spencer rotates his defensive line, the difference between the first string and second string isn’t much, but chances are that redshirt senior Parker Cothren will be the starter at the 1-Technique. Cothren has been a consistent presence in the middle for a few years now, and while No. 41 doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, you’d be hard-pressed to find many better 1-Techs in the Big Ten.
Behind Cothren will be Robert Windsor, and boy oh boy, could I talk about Windsor for a while. Despite coming to Happy Valley with little fanfare (actually landing an offer from Penn State only after a certain Connecticut five-star spurned the Lions), Windsor has more than proven his worth in his short time on campus. The rising redshirt sophomore was thrown into the fire last season, and performed exceptionally well. At 6-foot-4, 305 pounds — and only getting bigger — Windsor obviously has great size and strength, but it’s his nonstop motor that should continue to excite Penn State fans. There will be very little drop-off from Cothren to Windsor.
At the 3-Technique, you can expect to see Curtis Cothran with the first team. The redshirt senior converted from defensive end to defensive tackle last offseason, and after serving a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season, it became clear that Cothran found a home. Surpassing expectations, he quickly jumped the depth chart, eventually taking over the starting role late in the year. Now with another full offseason to become accustomed to his new spot, there’s still a lot of potential left for Cothran to fulfill despite heading into his fifth season.
Somewhat fittingly, Cothran is backed up by another converted defensive end — Kevin Givens. While the redshirt sophomore lacks the size generally seen on the interior, Givens is pound-for-pound one of the strongest players on the team. Toss in his elite quickness — highlighted by 4.5 sacks and 7.0 TFL — and Givens proves to be a menace inside, especially on passing downs.
While those four are expected to see the bulk of the workload, the Nittany Lions can go three-deep at defensive tackle. After not enrolling at Penn State until last August, redshirt senior Tyrell Chavis is in his first full offseason with the program, so the opportunity for growth is certainly there. Although it might be tough to overtake Cothren or Windsor, Chavis is a very solid player who should provide more-than-adequate depth at the 1-Tech.
Like the Nittany Lions did last year, expect to see Penn State utilize the versatility of Ryan Buchholz by sliding him down to defensive tackle on obvious passing downs. Lining Buchholz up with Givens, Shareef Miller, and Shane Simmons on third-and-longs — I mean, come on. Those boys will get after the quarterback.
Although neither of these guys will see much time in 2017, continue to keep an eye on redshirt freshmen Ellison Jordan and Antonio Shelton. Jordan is barely 6-foot-0 and will probably never hit 300 pounds, but like Givens, his first step and quickness sets him apart. Meanwhile Shelton has the physical tools at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds, but needs to show more consistency on-the-field.
Also, keep an eye on walk-on Ryan Monk. He’s smart, has a lot of grit. Fundamentally sound in what he's asked to do. A real student of the game. A real pro's pro.