The Penn State cornerbacks were one of the weaker positions for the Nittany Lion defense in 2016, at least in terms of forcing turnovers in pass coverage. However, several of their key contributors made season-altering plays that sent the Big Ten champions to Pasadena. This year’s crop of defensive backs looks to be more active in pass coverage and should result in more interceptions in 2017.
The Good News: Depth
Penn State enters 2017 with a lot of players with on-field experience, as well as a few true and redshirt freshmen able to see game action, chief among them blue-chip frosh Lamont Wade. Three veterans, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, and Amani Oruwariye lead this group.
The Bad News: A Key Injury
Regardless of the aforementioned depth, Reid’s knee injury really hurts Penn State. His versatility as both a cover man and a special teams player is invaluable, as is his two previous seasons of experience.
Despite the potentially season-ending injury for one of its starters, the Nittany Lions should be in solid shape at cornerback. Haley (remember him, Ohio State? How about you, Wisconsin?) has one spot locked up, but what about the opposite position? The senior Campbell, who started two of the 12 games he appeared in during the 2016 season, had 30 tackles and one interception as a junior, while Oruwariye had a interception returned for a touchdown in the season opener, and recorded seven tackles against USC. However, Oruwariye struggled at times in coverage against the Trojans, and did not play against Ohio State. Convention dictates that Haley and either Campbell or Oruwariye will at least begin the season as the starting cornerbacks, but what about their teammates behind them?
The Rest of the Rotation:
Before we get to the true freshmen, there is at least one redshirt freshman who should figure into the defensive back rotation: Zech McPhearson. The Columbia, Maryland native and two-sport star came in with the 2016 class as a four-star recruit, and the 12th ranked cornerback in the country according to ESPN. He is also one of two McPhearsons on the roster, along with walk-on wide receiver Josh. He might not get the headlines that his other defensive back brethren do, but expect to see McPhearson on the field in 2017.
Early enrollee Wade has certainly been getting a lot of headlines this spring, posting Barkley-like workout numbers and impressing many of his teammates with his versatility. He should challenge for playing time as early as the season opener against Akron, whether it’s in the defensive backfield or on special teams. He’s not the only first-year player that could see the field for Penn State. The rest of the true freshmen (Tariq Castro-Fields, D.J. Brown, and Donovan Johnson) arrive on campus in July, and although they shouldn’t see the field right away, don’t be shocked to see one of trio in action at some point this season.