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3 Reasons For Optimism: Defense

Get hyped about the 2019 Nittany Lion defense

NCAA Football: Maryland at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

As we continue our “3 Reasons For” series here at BSD, next up is why you should be optimistic about the Penn State defense heading into 2019.

1. A Pair of All-American Candidates

This fall, the Nittany Lions will have two of the best defensive players in the country. Both linebacker Micah Parsons and defensive end Yetur-Gross Matos are legitimate All-American candidates heading into the season.

As a true freshman, Parsons recorded a team high 82 tackles to go along with 4 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Parsons looked like the top-5 prospect that he was in high school flying all over the field making one play after another. His play last season earned him a nod as a Freshman All-American.

This fall, Parsons should only be better. Now that he is in his second season as a linebacker, the reads should come more naturally for the 6-foot-3, 245 pound athletic freak. You should also expect Parsons to have a larger role in the pass rush this fall, which does not bode well for Big Ten quarterbacks, because he may kill one of them this season.

As for Gross-Matos, the true junior might be the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten. At the end of the 2018 season there was no linemen in the conference more difficult to block than YGM.

YGM finished his sophomore campaign with 54 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 8 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. His 1.5 TFL per game was 2nd best in the conference, and ranked 12th nationally. Yeah, he good.

This fall, YGM will be playing for a paycheck. Barring injury, the Virginia native will be a 1st round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Expect a monster season out of YGM this fall.

There are few defensive duos in the entire country, let alone the Big Ten, as good as Parsons and Gross-Matos. These two are going to cause a lot of headaches and nightmares for opposing offenses this fall. And they’re going to anchor a defense that should be among the best in the Big Ten.

2. A Ferocious Front Seven

As long as defensive tackle sorts itself out, this front seven should be a ferocious one. All the pieces are there for it to be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Led by Gross-Matos, this defensive end group is among the best in the country. In fact, this spring James Franklin called it possibly the best in the country and the best he has ever been around in 25 years of coaching.

Shaka Toney is slated to start opposite Gross-Matos and is starting to round into more of a complete three-down defensive end. When healthy, redshirt junior Shane Simmons potential is pretty darn high.

Freshmen Jayson Oweh and Adisa Isaac are wild cards up front. Oweh is an athletic freak owning a 4.33 40-yard dash time to go with his 6-foot-5, 250 pound frame. He should terrorize Big Ten QBs this fall. Isaac could also play a pass rushing specialist role this fall. Redshirt freshman Nick Tarburton should help in run support.

Linebacker will be a strength this fall. On top of Parsons, the Nittany Lions return a pair of starters in Jan Johnson and Cam Brown. And Johnson’s backup, Ellis Brooks, may be even better than the redshirt senior. Hopefully, this won’t turn into another Koa Farmer/Parsons situation. Luckily, since Johnson is better than Farmer, it should not.

Sophomore Jesse Luketa and true freshmen Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon look ready to play big roles as well. Dixon could also be a big part of the pass rush. This is a talented, fast, and physical group.

Again, it will hinge largely on the defensive tackles. However, there are enough bodies there that the Sean Spencer should be able to find a five-man rotation. Robert Windsor returns as a starter, and both Antonio Shelton and PJ Mustipher began to turn a corner late last season and followed it up with a winter/spring that drew raves from the coaching staff.

Behind these three, there’s redshirt sophomore Fred Hansard who was starting to flash some prior to suffering a season ending injury against Michigan Stat last fall. As long as another DT steps up behind Hansard, Penn State should be in great shape. After capping a strong spring with a great showing in the Blue-White Game, do not be surprised if this fifth man is redshirt sophomore Damion Barber.

Penn State’s front seven is littered with former four and five-star recruits, and that should bode well for the Nittany Lions this fall.

3. Brent Pry is Really Good

I am not sure how, but, somehow, as he enters his fourth season as defensive coordinator in Happy Valley, Brent Pry remains criminally underappreciated by some fans. Each of the last two seasons Pry’s defenses have finished in the top-20 nationally in total defense, passing efficiency, and sacks.

Pry has had cooked up some outstanding game plans the past three season. The 2016 Ohio State game and the Fiesta Bowl against Washington both come to mind immediately. He is creative with his blitzes and excels at making halftime adjustments.

There is a reason Pry has turned down opportunities to leave Penn State to become a head coach. The guy is a damn good football coach, and he will be a solid head coach one day. But, for now, he remains as one of the best DCs in the Big Ten.