Penn State’s defense appeared to be one of the worst to take the field in Happy Valley for some time during the early stages of 2016. Facing injuries to key players and a lack of experience, it seemed as though they would struggle against any competent offense for the remainder of the season.
However, things would quickly change. Thanks to a masterful job by defensive coordinator Brent Pry, the defense adapted and showed immediate progress to develop into one of the Big Ten’s best by the end of the season.
Despite the departure of its most prominent leader in Brandon Bell and two starting defensive ends (along with the likely season-ending injury to John Reid during spring practice), Penn State’s defense could become even better as James Franklin’s success on the recruiting trail begins to pay off, adding more talent and depth at each position group.
The Potential of the Defensive Line
Despite its youth, Penn State’s defensive line transformed into a complete force in 2016. With another full year of experience, this could become one of the very best front fours in the nation in 2017.
Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to rotate players heavily, and could have an effective three-deep lineup that wears down even the best offensive lines they face throughout the season- becoming especially dominant in the fourth quarter.
Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren make an outstanding duo in the middle, while Kevin Givens is a star-in-the-making who will see his role increase. Givens has a tremendous combination of speed and strength, which allowed him to become a playmaker from the defensive tackle position. He received praise throughout the spring and should become a total force when the team takes the field in September. Robert Windsor showed flashes of potential as a redshirt freshman, and with his tenacity and instincts that always find him near the ball, should be in for a breakthrough season.
At defensive end, Shareef Miller and Torrence Brown have picked up valuable experience and should be more than ready to move into their full-time starting gigs. Both have exceptional athleticism and will be tough to keep out of the backfield. Behind them are five-star prospect Shane Simmons, who could push for a starting position as a redshirt freshman, and Shaka Toney, who is drawing comparisons to Aaron Maybin for his fierce play coming off the edge despite his lack of size.
Additionally, there’s also Ryan Buchholz, a versatile player who will build off of an impressive freshman campaign, as well as the likes of Ellison Jordan, Antonio Shelton and Daniel Joseph- all highly-coveted prospects who are just itching to see the field in their first year of eligibility.
Speed at Linebacker
If you take a close at the depth chart heading into 2017, it’s not a stretch to say that linebacker is the team’s biggest question mark. Penn State will likely be depending on a handful of inexperienced players who will have to learn on the fly. However, the one thing they do have- pure, absolute speed.
Perhaps the linebacker who could make the biggest leap this fall is Koa Farmer. We already know he can do some occasional damage off the edge, but the outside linebacker, then safety, then outside linebacker again finally has had the time to develop and reportedly had a tremendous spring that may have locked him in the starting roll outside Bowen, another outside linebacker who can really move. Cam Brown is lightning-quick as well, and should also really improve following a true freshman season where he was forced to play early because of a rash of injuries at the position.
Here’s the fun part- imagine any obvious passing down with a combination of Bowen/Farmer/Brown at OLB potentially coming off the edge, along with a defensive line of Shareef Miller, Kevin Givens, Robert Windor and Torrence Brown or Shane Simmons. The pressure can come from literally anywhere (or everywhere). Put it this way- these guys are really going to get after the quarterback this fall, and boy will it be fun to watch.
Here’s a fun “Where’s Waldo” game to play next time you have some time to kill- look through photos from spring practice and in each one, try to find Jason Cabinda somewhere in the background shouting encouragement to one of his teammates. Cabinda didn’t waste any time declaring his intention to return for his senior season, and it should be a special one for the man in the middle who is long on experience and big plays (like this one, for instance). Senior safety Marcus Allen has been starting since midway through his freshman, and brings a fiery attitude to his game that rubs off on those around him to elevate their play. Upfront Parker Cothren can be counted on to show the ropes and be a leader among a young but extremely talented defensive line. It wouldn’t be a surprise either to see cornerback John Reid take a Sean Lee circa 2008 role, wearing a headset on the sideline and serving as an extra coach and mentor for the members of the secondary.
To win a championship, a team needs talent, luck and leadership. The best Penn State teams always had a strong group of upperclassman who pushed their teammates and demanded that they gave it their all on each play, while remaining cool in the most tense of moments. No one knows exactly what the upcoming season has in store for the Nittany Lions, but they do have the experienced leaders needed to reach their lofty goals.