In 2016, Penn State’s defense was not always stellar. Tthe Lions, unlike previous years, often had to rely on the offense to win games —getting into shootouts with Pitt, Indiana, Wisconsin, and USC throughout the season - and only winning two of those. This was not your father’s Penn State defense, and though we looked at how the defense may improve in 2017 yesterday, I’m here to say not so fast, my friend.
Youth at Defensive End
Let’s start up front. In 2017, Coach Spencer will have to replace both starting defensive ends in Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Garrett declared for the NFL Draft a year early, while Evan ran out of eligibility. Those two combined for 12 sacks in 2016, as well as 21 tackles for loss. That sort of productivity is hard to replicate, even with the amount of heavy rotation that Coach Chaos likes to employ. Besides production, the level of leadership lost - particularly from Sickels - will be difficult to replace. Garrett missed the first half of the Ohio State game due to suspension, came in at the start of the third quarter, and immediately went off on the Buckeyes, producing 9 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 3.5 TFL.
The replacements for Sickels and Schwann figure to be Redshirt Junior Torrence Brown and RS Sophomore Shareef Miller as starters. RS Sophomore Ryan Bucholz will show up in the rotation, as well as RS Freshmen Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney. If there’s anything to take away from this list, it’s that once again Penn State is going to be young at the end position. These play makers have plenty of talent, to be sure, but having to rely on so much youth will surely give Brent Pry something to be concerned about.
If the youngsters can step into the shoes left by their predecessors, the defensive line could be a strength for Penn State. Don’t be surprised, however, if the first few weeks of the season - at a minimum - are shaky as everyone settles into new roles.
The 2016 season started off shakily, as Jason Cabinda missed the Pitt game due to injury, and would only worsen from there. Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the season against Temple, and Brandon Bell nursed injuries all season. The injuries to the linebacking corps reached a crescendo against Michigan when backup walk-on Brandon Smith was ejected for targeting, only to be replaced by backup walk-on Jan Johnson - who was then lost for the season to injury.
Filling in throughout the course of the season were Sophomore Manny Bowen, RS Sophomore Koa Farmer, Freshman Cameron Brown, and Sophomore Jake Cooper. While this group performed admirably, it was clear that there was a large gap between the original starting trio of Wartman-White-Cabinda-Bell and the backups. The bad news for 2017? Two of those three starters are gone. After suffering two straight season-ending knee injuries, Nyeem opted to forego any chance at a medical redshirt, while Brandon Bell exhausted the rest of his eligiblity in 2016 - aptly enough, missing the end of the Rose Bowl due to an injury.
To compound the issue, there is one position group that Coach Franklin and Co. have not done a fantastic job of recruiting - you guessed it, the linebackers. While the last few recruiting classes have brought in a handful of true linebackers, many of the defensive recruits are tweeners - small defensive ends or heavy defensive backs. Koa Farmer is a perfect example. So while the projected starting trio of Farmer-Cabinda-Bowen will be more than capable as starters, the backups may not quite be ready to step in yet. Another string of injuries, and a loss or two could crop up to blemish an otherwise stellar season.
Who Joins Marcus Allen in the Secondary?
The defensive backs were one of the strengths of the 2016 Penn State defense, and they needed to be once the linebacking injuries began to pile up. Strong safety Marcus Allen led the team with 110 tackles, and free safety Malik Golden added another 75. John Reid and Grant Haley played well at the corners, with Christian Campbell coming in for nickel downs. The good news is that only Golden has departed the secondary, having exhausted his eligibility.
The bad news? Shutdown cornerback John Reid suffered what appears to be a significant knee injury during spring practice. It’s not 100% clear yet just how long the defensive back will be out, but it seems that he’ll be gone for at least part of the 2017 season. Grant Haley should have one of the starting CB positions locked down, but is Christian Campbell reliable enough for a starting spot? Or will the coaching staff look to some of the younger players on the outside - RS Junior Amani Oruwariye, RS Sophomore Garrett Taylor, and RS Freshman Zech McPhearson all come to mind, not to mention true Freshman Lamont Wade. The staff will have options at the outside, but someone will need to step up and fill in.
Perhaps more worrisome is the strong safety position. Throughout last season, several players rotated in to give Golden a breather, but no one seemed to take the next step toward starter quality. Heading into spring practice, Senior Troy Apke looked like he might have the inside track, but he never seemed to lock up the spot. RS Junior Nick Scott played well throughout the spring, and RS Sophomore Jarvis Miller had himself a fantastic Blue-White Game. Similar to CB, though, someone will need to step forward and put a firm claim on the starting gig.
If there’s any theme to the 2017 Penn State defense, it’s that it will be young but talented. If the youth movement can step in at defensive end, linebacker, and in the secondary, this team could be scary good. If there’s a significant drop off between starters and reserves, Penn State may see itself on the wrong side of a couple shootouts, ultimately to be left on the outside of the playoffs once again.