Defensive ends and defensive tackles yesterday, now it’s time for the back seven of Penn State’s defense.
Will: Micah Parsons (SO), Jesse Luketa (SO), Brandon Smith (FR)
Mike: Ellis Brooks (RS SO), *Jan Johnson (RS SR), Luketa/Smith
Sam: *Cam Brown (SR), Charlie Katshir (RS FR), Lance Dixon (FR)
As far as position groups that will see the largest improvement between 2018 and 2019, I think linebacker will make a really strong argument. From the starting unit to the depth that’s waiting in the wings, this is a unit that is trending upward in a big way.
One of the biggest reasons for that? Micah freaking Parsons. First and foremost, let me say this: I was wrong about Parsons at linebacker. Not that I thought he couldn’t be a good linebacker, I was just unsure if his ability and value as a linebacker would enough to keep him from playing defensive end full-time. When you have someone who is as good of a pass rusher as Micah Parsons, he better have All-American upside at linebacker if you aren’t going to have him rush the passer on 96.5% of plays.
As it turns out, Micah Parsons does in fact have All-American upside at linebacker. Now, does that mean Parsons is going to be an All-American next season? I don’t know! Probably not! That’s a lot to ask of someone who is still far from a finished product. But another offseason at linebacker with Brent Pry, and I feel rather confident in saying he’s going to be a problem for Big Ten offenses in 2019.
On the opposite side of Parsons will be senior Cam Brown, who all in all, had a solid 2018 season with 63 tackles and 6.5 TFLs. He’ll still make a boneheaded play (like tackling the opposition with his head) every once in a while, but in Penn State’s defense, he plays the Sam role rather well. His long, lanky frame and his comfort while playing in space gives the Nittany Lions exactly what they’re looking for from a out of the box linebacker.
Where there could be some competition for a starting spot is the Mike. Former walk-on Jan Johnson returns having started all 13 games, and to be honest, Johnson is a reliable option. He knows the calls, knows the defense, and he usually finds himself around the football. Generally speaking, that’s a pretty good resume for a returning starter. But, that being said, Johnson is a bit limited athletically, which could open up the case for Ellis Brooks to jump him at some point this offseason.
I don’t know if I would call 2018 a “breakout” year for Brooks, but the rising redshirt sophomore was able to fend off Jesse Luketa for the backup middle linebacker spot, and played really well when given the opportunity. While Brooks isn’t the greatest athlete either, he’s a tick or two above Johnson, and displayed the instincts and smarts that could push him to the starting spot in 2019.
Speaking of Luketa, I’m not sure he’s a starter next year, but he’ll be able to provide depth at both box linebacker spots and will play a pivotal role on special teams. Plus, even as a non-starter, is going to be one of the more vocal guys on the team. Of course his value on the field is great, but with so much attrition on the roster, having a young guy like Luketa who is a natural leader is hugely important too.
As for the freshmen, I don’t think either Brandon Smith or Lance Dixon will redshirt. Smith should bounce between the Mike and Will this spring, and is likely to see at least some snaps wherever he ends up. There will be an adjustment period with him dropping back into space more often than he did in high school, but like Parsons, he’s a terror when he’s attacking the line of scrimmage. He’s just going to be too good to keep off the field.
As for Dixon, he’ll need to add quite a bit of weight, but fortunately with him enrolling early, he should be up to 220-ish pounds by the fall. Would not be surprised if he’s in the two-deep come Idaho. Should also help on special teams.
Free Safety: Jaquan Brisker (JR), John Petrishen (RS JR), Tyler Rudolph (FR)
Strong Safety: *Garrett Taylor (RS SR), Jonathan Sutherland (RS SO), Drew Hartlaub (RS SO)
Well, this one has changed a bit, hasn’t it? With redshirt senior Ayron Monroe announcing his transfer, and junior Lamont Wade searching his options too, the competition for the vacant starting free safety took a bit of a hit. Still, there’s some solid options here, even if the depth isn’t what it originally was.
Before we get into free safety, let’s talk about the returning starter at strong safety: Garrett Taylor. The rising redshirt senior finished the 2018 season with 71 tackles and three interceptions, proving to be a steady force in the back half of Penn State’s defense. While he isn’t elite in any one area, Taylor is one of the better safeties returning in the Big Ten, and should be someone who pushes for All-Conference honors in 2019.
Who starts next to Taylor remains to be seen, but the leader in the clubhouse is JUCO product Jaquan Brisker. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Brisker brings the unique blend of size and athleticism that’s needed to play Penn State’s free safety position. He has the speed and quickness to be apt in coverage, while offering the size and mentality to be a force in run support. Although Brisker won’t be enrolling until the summer, expect him to make a big time impact once he’s on campus.
With Brisker not here for the spring, I’d expect to see Jonathan Sutherland take up the majority of the first team reps next to Taylor in practice. Sutherland isn’t the fastest safety on the roster, but makes up for his lack of speed by being an absolute force in run support. I believe it was Marcus Allen who said in 2017 that Sutherland “hits like a truck” which is a very nice compliment to give to a football player.
Like I talked about with defensive tackle yesterday, this is a position I think you could see a couple moving pieces when it comes to the starting unit. Taylor, Sutherland, and Brisker all probably fit best as the strong safety (i.e., the safety that supports the run a bit more), so it will be a case of figuring out who fits where once Brisker gets to Happy Valley. In an ideal world, Brisker is as athletic as Penn State thinks he is, and then you can just let Taylor stay at strong safety, but we’ll see what ends up happening. Either way, I’m guessing safeties coach Tim Banks will get Taylor plenty of run at both spots in the spring.
Beyond those three, not sure anyone else will figure into the starting unit conversation. Redshirt senior John Petrishen should provide some nice depth, and who knows, maybe now that’s healthy he surprises this offseason. If not, that’s okay too. Petrishen was a familiar face on special teams last year, and I would imagine that will be the case in 2019 as well.
As far as true freshmen, I would expect Tyler Rudolph to make the move from cornerback to safety rather quickly this spring. Safety was his longterm position anyway, but now that there will only be three scholarships safeties come practice in March, it seems like a good idea to toss Rudolph there now. He’s squarely in the yellow light category.
There might also be a DeMatha Catholic four-star safety that could figure into this picture. Just saying.
CB: *John Reid (RS SR), Donovan Johnson (RS SO), DJ Brown (RS SO)
CB: *Tariq Castro-Fields (JR), Trent Gordon (RS FR), Keaton Ellis (FR)
We’ll keep the discussion about the starting duo short and simple — can’t ask for a better pairing than John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields.
After struggling for the first couple games of 2018, Reid got his swagger back during the Ohio State game, and had a strong season thereafter. Very excited that he decided to come back for his fifth season, and hopefully, it ends up being a wise decision for him as he rises up NFL draft boards with another strong season.
For Castro-Fields, it’ll just be a matter of making more impact plays. He displays everything else — speed, length, tackling ability, rarely out of position — but a few interceptions here or there wouldn’t hurt. He’s a top-tier cornerback otherwise though. Like Reid, very excited to see him fly up draft boards next fall.
From a depth perspective, the loss of Zech McPhearson stings a bit, but Penn State should be alright. Redshirt sophomore Donovan Johnson is one of the fastest guys on the team, and saw a good amount of time in the slot in 2018. With Reid playing more on the outside in 2019, I’d expect to see even more of Johnson on the inside next year. He looks to be a good bet to win the third cornerback spot.
We heard good things about Trent Gordon last year, as he saw play in a game or two while preserving his redshirt. He’ll face strong competition for that fourth cornerback spot from true freshman (and early enrollee) Keaton Ellis though. If you don’t know much about Ellis, just know that cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said that Ellis had the best film of any cornerback in the country. Big expectations for the State College High product.