Penn State’s defense received a big blow on Wednesday afternoon when redshirt junior defensive end Ryan Buchholz announced his retirement due to chronic back issues. While the Nittany Lions are deep at defensive end, Buchholz was arguably the team’s best defensive player so make no mistake about it, losing him is a tough pill to swallow.
Buchholz was slated to start opposite Shareef Miller this fall in what would have been his second season as a starter in what was shaping up to be one of the best defensive end duos in the Big Ten. While Miller will still be one of the team’s starting defensive ends, the question now becomes what will Brent Pry and Sean Spencer do to replace Buchholz?
The player that appears ready to step up and replace Buchholz as a starter is sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos. YGM played in all 13 games last season and saw his role increase as the season went on. The 6’5” 262-pound Virginia native has the size, frame, and explosiveness to be a great defensive end.
Like Buchholz, YGM can help set the edge and play strong against the run while also getting after the passer. YGM may have already been on his way to a breakout season this fall, now he’ll have every opportunity in the world to have such a season.
As for the aforementioned Miller, all signs point toward him becoming one of the premiere pass rushers in the Big Ten this fall. A double digit sack season is not out of the question for Miller this fall.
Next in line?
The Buchholz news will also lead to an increase in reps for redshirt sophomores Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney.
Simmons came to Penn State as a five-star recruit from powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School. In 2017 Simmons played in all 13 games and recorded 4.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. As the season progressed, Simmons’ presence began to be felt more and more.
Now tipping the scales at 254 pounds, Simmons is more prepared to be an every down defensive end. This should lead to an increased role for him this fall.
Last fall Toney was primarily a pass rush specialist. He is now over 240 pounds which should make him better equipped to be effective in more than just pass rushing situations. Toney has elite quickness off the edge which helped him to record 3.5 sacks last fall. But now the Nittany Lions may need him to do more than just get after the quarterback.
The wild cards
This was already a big camp for redshirt sophomore Daniel Joseph and it just became better. Joseph appeared in eight games last season and flashed when on the field. Quietly, he recorded 3.0 sacks and seemed to spend more time than not in the opposing backfield when on the field. It should be noted that most of Joseph’s reps came in garbage time so they were not the highest quality of reps but it was still encouraging to see Joseph play well.
With Buchholz no longer part of the team, Joseph may need to step up more than any other defensive end other than the starters. YGM, Simmons, and Toney taking the next step is expected and will give the Nittany Lions a strong top four at defensive end along with Miller. But the team needs more depth at defensive end, and that is where Joseph comes into play.
True freshman Jayson Oweh is another player to watch. Oweh is extremely raw but a freak athlete that tests off the charts. At 6’5” 247 pounds Oweh is far from a finished product but he can provide a spark as a pass rusher this fall, similar to the role Toney played last season.
From the time he committed to Penn State last December Oweh seemed destined for a redshirt year. However, do not be surprised to see him in pass rushing situations now this fall. And with the new redshirt rules, James Franklin can always pull back the reigns on Oweh if he looks over-matched early in the season but I wouldn’t count on that happening.
Torrence Brown could be an option as well, but defensive coordinator Brent Pry has said that he does not expect to have Brown at his disposal when the season begins and there is a strong belief that Brown’s career was ended when he got injured against Georgia State last September.
Defensive tackle could impact defensive end
Last week, I wrote about how and why defensive tackle can become a strength for the Nittany Lions this fall. Basically, it hinges on Antonio Shelton, Fred Hansard, Damion Barber, and PJ Mustipher rising to the occasion to give the Nittany Lions a strong crop of defensive tackles.
If this does indeed happen, could we see Kevin Givens bump back out to defensive end? It would seem possible. After all, he did just that last season after Brown got injured. It would not be a total shock to see some defensive end reps for Givens this fall.