Prior to the 2018, I was rather down on Penn State’s defense. I thought it would be a solid unit that would show flashes of greatness, but would also struggle at times. As it turns out, that Brent Pry guy is pretty good as he turned the 2018 defense into a top five unit in the Big Ten.
While the Nittany Lions will be replacing DT Kevin Givens, DE Shareef Miller, LB Koa Farmer, FS Nick Scott, and CB Amani Oruwariye, make no mistake about it — the 2019 defense has the chance to be one of the best units not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire country for that matter.
*Denotes returning starter
Strongside: *Yetur Gross-Matos (JR), Jayson Oweh (RS FR), Nick Tarburton (RS FR)
Weakside: Shane Simmons (RS JR), Shaka Toney (RS JR), Daniel Joseph (RS JR)
While this unit could have been stupid good if Shareef Miller had returned, this is still a very strong group for Penn State that should be more equipped to go three-deep in 2019.
Leading the unit will be Yetur Gross-Matos, who very well could be the best defensive end in the Big Ten, and is someone who has the makings of going in the first round in the 2020 NFL Draft. At 6-foot-5, 259 pounds, Gross-Matos can do it all for Penn State, whether that’s rushing the passer, defending the run, or even moving inside to defensive tackle on third-and-long situations. He’ll see more attention next year, so even if he doesn’t put up the same gaudy numbers (8 sacks, 20 TFLs), it certainly won’t mean he’s not making a strong impact.
At the opposite defensive end position, it should be a battle between Shaka Toney and Shane Simmons. Honestly, I think both will split snaps pretty evenly because each has a clear strength — Toney the much better pass rusher, with Simmons being the much better defender against the run.
For formality’s sake though, we’ll give Simmons the nod as the starter. He had a pretty solid redshirt freshman year, but the injury bug bit him hard last offseason as he missed chunks of the spring, summer, and fall with a foot injury. Hopefully, the foot issue is a thing of the past, and Simmons can get back on track with a healthy 2019.
This will be a theme you’ll see with much of the 2018 recruiting class this offseason, but watch out for redshirt freshman Jayson Oweh. The 6-foot-5, 247-pound freak athlete came into Penn State raw as heck, but there might not be a player on the roster with an upside higher than Oweh’s. I’m sure there’s still a ways to go in his development, but he’s the type of talent who could make a big jump between year one and two.
Rounding out the three-deep is redshirt junior Daniel Joseph and redshirt freshman Nick Tarburton. Joseph saw action is all 13 games this season, while Tarburton kept his redshirt on after seeing action in the first two games.
While both should prove to be solid players, Tarburton specifically could be someone that surprises this offseason. This will be his first full spring at defensive end, so it will be interesting to see how he plays now that he’s picked up on some of nuances of the position. He doesn’t have Ryan Buchholz length, but figures to be a similar player — i.e. a strong, edge setting defensive end.
3-Tech: *Robert Windsor (RS SR), PJ Mustipher (SO), Ellison Jordan (RS JR), Damion Barber (RS SO)
1-Tech: Antonio Shelton (RS JR), Fred Hansard (RS SO), Judge Culpepper (RS FR), Aeneas Hawkins (RS FR)
I’m not exactly sure what to think about defensive tackle just yet. From a depth and just having “guys” perspective, they are in better shape than they were coming into 2018. But the loss of Kevin Givens really sucks. Like hardcore sucks. Givens had his limitations, but he was a difference maker on the inside that made life easier for the dudes who were playing next to him. So while Sean Spencer probably feels like he has more pieces — and thus, will be able to rotate more heavily — it remains to be seen if anyone can have the impact Givens had.
Before we get into Givens’ replacements, let’s talk about what we know for sure: Robert Windsor will be starting at defensive tackle. He’s big, he’s strong, he hustles, he jumps offsides a little too often, but all in all, Windsor is a good piece in the middle. I’m not sure if he has another 7.5 sack season in him, but hey, the kid is productive and has found a way to get it done. Penn State will need another strong season from the redshirt senior.
What’s interesting here, and will be something to follow into the spring, is where they feel Windsor is best at. He’s been mostly a 1-Tech during his career, but he can play the 3-Tech if need be. The issue (for the lack of a better term) is that out of Penn State’s top four defensive tackle options — Windsor, PJ Mustipher, Antonio Shelton, and Fred Hansard — they are all probably better fits as 1-Techs, so it’s a matter of figuring out what’s best to make those pieces fit.
Personally, having watched approximately zero snaps at practice since August, I think what makes the most sense is having Windsor and Mustipher see the bulk of the snaps at the 3-Tech, while the 1-Tech spot is mostly a rotation of Shelton and Hansard, but also getting Windsor and Mustipher some snaps there too.
Sure, in this scenario, Mustipher — safe to say, the guy with the most potential out of this group — wouldn’t be a starter. But with the way Spencer cross-trains his interior guys and likes to rotate when the depth allows it, this would be a case of Mustipher being a “backup” in name only. He’d essentially see starter snaps, kind of like Kevin Givens did in 2017 despite being a backup to “The Cothra(e)n.”
Let’s talk about an obvious omission here: CJ Thorpe. I think offensive guard is his more natural position, but I really liked the strides he made as a defensive tackle from the end of the season to the bowl game. If he got to spend a whole offseason as a full-time defensive tackle, I think he’d really cement himself as a key cog in 2019, and an eventual starter at the position in 2020. Flat out, he — along with Mustipher — just bring a unique skillset of size, strength, and quickness that few defensive tackles possess.
That being said, as things currently stand with the roster (i.e., no incoming grad transfers yet), I think Thorpe gets moved back to the offensive line. They need the numbers (only 11 scholarship offensive linemen projected for 2019, which is very low), and Thorpe could be the favorite to start at right guard next year. We’ll see though.
Sticking with potential x-factors, let’s talk about Ellison Jordan. If Jordan could stay healthy, that would be an incredible boost to the defensive line. He was playing really solid football before his knee issues popped up again last year, and is one of the few “true” 3-Techs on the team. Moving forward though, I’m not sure what to expect. I doubt he’ll ever be healthy enough to log starter snaps, but even if Penn State can get 15-20% of the snaps per game out of Jordan, that would quite beneficial to the unit. Let’s hope for all parties involved, Jordan has a healthy offseason.
Overall, I’m not sure there’s a 1st Team All-Conference performer here, but the depth is greatly improved from last year this time. I mean, Givens and Windsor had to play 70% of snaps just about weekly, which is just an insane amount when you consider that the Cothra(e)n duo never played more than 70% of snaps during the 2017 season.
Fortunately for next year, the starters hauling that many snaps week in and week out shouldn’t be the case. I expect a much heavier rotation that is closer to what we saw in 2017, which should be good news for a defensive line group that tired during the fourth quarter of games in 2018.
What that rotation is remains to be seen. Someone like Mustipher could make a big jump this spring, secure a starting spot, and keep Windsor as a 1-Tech. Jordan’s knee could look good enough that he factors into a starting role. Guys like Judge Culpepper and Damion Barber could emerge and break into the rotation. If you can’t tell, there’s just a lot of moving pieces here. For my money, it’s the most interesting spot to watch this spring and into the summer. Should be fun to follow.