Despite the early departure of Shareef Miller to the NFL, the optimism of the defensive end group is overflowing entering the 2019 season. It’s an intriguing mix that includes a potential first-team All-American, experienced veterans who have shown continuous improvement, and some new faces who are will carry some big expectations with them once they’re ready to hit the field.
Let’s start with the biggest reason to be excited about the Nittany Lions defensive end group:
Gross-Matos impressed in spurts as a true freshman in 2017. He then exploded onto the scene last fall, quickly becoming one of the very best defensive ends in the nation. He started the season with solid performances, but truly broke out in week three against Kent State and never looked back.
Once Gross-Matos came into his own, he was practically unblockable as he piled up huge numbers and somehow managed to outdo himself nearly each week. Against Michigan State he would force a fumble while picking up 2.5 TFLs and 0.5 sacks. The following week he collected 10 tackles and two sacks at Indiana. He was once again all over the field the following game against Iowa, where he had nine tackles, four TFLs and two sacks. All of a sudden, it just became routine for Gross-Matos to make plays in the opponents’ backfield all afternoon.
What makes Gross-Matos so difficult to defend? He does just about everything right. He moves exceptionally well for his size at 6-5, 265 lbs. He has an explosive first step, and is excellent with his hands to quickly shed blockers and make his way into the backfield. Based on his quick ascension, it’s obvious that Gross-Matos is a very coachable player who keeps getting better with experience.
As he enters his true junior season, Gross-Matos will be getting the lions share of attention from opponents. But even then, he has shown an ability to break through double, and even triple-teams. Even if they manage to slow him down, it still goes a long way to helping his other line mates who have the explosiveness to do some damage if left with a single blocker.
Toney is among the flat-out fastest defensive ends you’ll find in the Big Ten, and could be in for a major breakout season on the opposite side of Gross-Matos. After spending time bulking up to prepare for life in the Big Ten, Toney became a regular in 2017 before playing a more expanded role last season.
He was mostly used as a situational pass rusher the last two seasons, and regularly took advantage of the opportunities on the field. This was never more apparent than the Indiana game, where he played about as good of a quarter of football as imaginable- collecting four sacks and a forced fumble in the final stanza to help Penn State hang on to beat the Hoosiers to snap a two-game losing streak.
Toney will now be counted on as an every-down player, and by all accounts seems to be ready to take on the challenge. He has received regular praise from the coaching staff during spring ball, who have noted his improvement against the run and ability to make plays with regularity, while becoming a main leader for the defensive line. All signs seem to be pointing towards a big 2019 for the redshirt junior.
Joseph has been part of the rotation going back the past two seasons, and will look to take on a larger role as a redshirt junior. Like Gross-Matos, Joseph is a big-bodied defensive end at 6-3 and nearly 260 lbs. who is capable of staying on the field for any situation. He had his best game of 2018 against Pitt, recording four tackles and a sack. He’ll need to get to the ball more often in the fall, as he had six games a season ago where he made an appearance without recording any stats.
Simmons has shown flashes of his tremendous potential, but unfortunately has been hindered by the injury bug during his time in State College. It doesn’t appear he’ll be able to participate on Saturday, so we may have to wait until fall to see if Simmons is ready to take a big step forward.
Even if we have to wait a little longer, Simmons career could mirror that of linebacker Mike Hull, currently of the Miami Dolphins after last playing for Penn State in 2014. Both came to Happy Valley as five-star prospects, but injuries got in the way and kept them off the field. Hull began to blossom as a junior before having one of the best single seasons for a linebacker at Penn State, finishing with 138 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, two sacks and a forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception along the way.
Simmons has exceptional athleticism, and could be in line to become a dominating presence on the defensive line if he can stay healthy.
If you’re looking for someone with major potential to get excited about, Oweh is your guy. He’s nothing short of a freak athlete, with a lengthy 6-5 and 250 lb. frame who seems destined to cause nightmares for those attempting to block him.
Oweh came to Penn State extremely raw, so it wasn’t a surprise that he took a redshirt season in 2018. He did appear in four games, and stood out against Kent State with two sacks, a tackle and a quarterback hurry. He saw the field against Illinois and Rutgers but did not record any statistics, and had a solo tackle in the regular season finale against Maryland.
After a year learning from Sean Spencer and a full offseason in the weight room, Oweh figures to be part of the regular rotation and see plenty of time in 2019 as a redshirt freshman.
Tarburton is another defensive end looking to crack the lineup as a redshirt freshman. He spent his first year as a Nittany Lion bulking up and preparing for the switch from middle linebacker to defensive end. It seemed to have worked, as he is now listed at 6-3 and 260 lbs. after adding nearly 20 pounds.
The Perkasie, Pa. native entered Penn State as a four-star prospect and 10th-best player in Pennsylvania. He appeared in two games in 2018, but did not record any statistics against Appalachian State and Pitt. He did net two Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week awards in helping prepare for Indiana and Wisconsin, showing that he may be ready to branch out in 2019.
Isaac is participating in spring ball as an early enrollee, but it seems unlikely he’ll play much as a true freshman. Instead, he’ll be going the Aaron Maybin/Shaka Toney route of spending a year bulking up to prepare for the rigors of Big Ten play.
Once he’s ready to hit the field, though, look out. Isaac was a major get for Penn State. He enters the program as a high four-star prospect with a long offer sheet that includes the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Michigan, Florida, Texas A&M, Wisconsin...well, you get the point. Pretty much everyone wanted to land the top prospect in New York who was ranked in the top 100 overall members of the class by 247.