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A Look at Penn State’s Redshirt Freshmen: Defense

Before the Nittany Lions hit the field in 2017, let’s look back at the players who sat out during their first season in 2016.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to the future stars that redshirted on offense last year, James Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry were able to stockpile some future talent on the other side of the ball. From those who may try to fight to be a part of the two (or three) deep to the players who’ll challenge for starting time from day one, the defense will be a better and deeper unit this season with these players available to play.

Shane Simmons (DE)

Simmons signed with Penn State as a high four/borderline 5 star lineman, the number one player in Maryland amongst the 2016 recruiting class, and the #4 defensive end nationwide. He was vocal about his desire to redshirt last season, though some thought he was too talented to keep off the field (and he suited up at times, including at the Rose Bowl, in case his services were needed). Simmons has got a lot of summer camp hype, and was even picked by one of our own to be the team’s breakout player – not a huge leap in logic. In a defense that lacked an elite pass rusher in 2016, Simmons could fill that role almost from day one – though he will have to contend with more veteran players like Shareef Miller and Torrence Brown, as well as fellow redshirt frosh Shaka Toney, in order to see playing time. The good news? Defensive line coach Sean “Chaos” Spencer likes his rotations a lot, so even if Simmons isn’t technically the starter, he could see significant snaps almost immediately.

Shaka Toney (DE)

If Simmons wasn’t in this redshirt class, Toney would be the player to watch. Originally recruited as a linebacker, Toney got bigger and switch positions, where he will challenge for playing time almost immediately. Reports out of camp are that he’s been pretty impressive, and quotes from Chaos bear this out. A three-star out of high school, Toney has an incredibly high ceiling and a lot of upside, quick and atypical for a defensive end. Should provide a good complement in explosiveness with Simmons.

Zech McPhearson (CB)

The press on the McPhearson front has been fairly quiet outside of the insider staples, but the four star cornerback from Maryland should be a force in the two-deep behind presumed starters Grant Haley and Christian Campbell. As his brother, Josh, enters his final season with the program, Zech looks to contribute significantly all four years – but that may be difficult if he gets overshadowed by true freshmen Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields. McPhearson is truly talented (a scout-team standout last year, he, like Simmons, suited up against USC) and has added weight in the offseason though he’s still slightly undersized. He’s had a reportedly good camp—but McPhearson’s immediate impact may be felt on special teams. He was a return man in high school and may look to fill the John Reid void in punt returns, if the staff decides he’s the better option than Wade (or if they need to spell the latter for a series or two).

Ellison Jordan (DT)

Jordan’s redshirt of the 2016 season wasn’t entirely unexpected, as he was coming off an ACL tear. The four-star tackle has the talent to push time in the two-deep immediately, though the odds he’ll replace the entrenched Cothraen are low. There hasn’t been a lot of press on Jordan out of camp, but in the past he’s displayed quickness and good hands – and though undersized, he plays with shades of Jordan Hill or Anthony Zettel, undersized but able to force his way through blocks.

Daniel Joseph (DE)

Pry name checked Joseph amongst others as someone they are very excited about headed into the fall, but the four-star one-time Michigan lean and #3 player in Illinois has stayed relatively under the radar, especially compared to fellow redshirt freshmen defensive ends Simmons and Toney. Coming off an injury last year, Joseph may ultimately grow into a three-tech tackle, but this year he’s still slotted on the outside and will fight for time on the second team. He has some of the best film of any of the redshirt freshmen.

Antonio Shelton (DT)

Shelton is perhaps the biggest enigma of this defensive redshirt class, as reports on his status in practice have been few and far between. This past season, the three-star late edition to the class was named the team’s funniest player by ESPN—but with the talent and experience in front of him, he’ll be hard pressed to find time and may not even be able to challenge for time in the three-deep.