Which position group will be the cream of the crop for the Penn State defense in 2020? Let’s take a look at each unit and where they stand heading into the fall:
I don’t think there’s a clearcut number one position group on the defensive side of the ball, but I went with linebacker for two main reasons: Micah Parsons and the combination of talent and depth.
Parsons is the best linebacker in college football. This isn’t my opinion, but rather a fact that everyone should be accepting of. Parsons finished last season with 109 tackles, 14 TFLs, and 5 sacks — just ridiculous stats, especially when you consider Parsons really didn’t even “figure it out” until November hit. His ability alone vaults the linebackers into the number one spot for me.
Beyond Parsons though, there’s still a great blend of talent and depth at linebacker. I mean, there’s legitimately five guys that I would feel comfortable starting next to Parsons: Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Brandon Smith, Lance Dixon, and Charlie Katshir. Now sure, some of those players offer more upside (oh hello Brandon Smith) than others, but it’s a pretty dang deep group that will have the horses to run with any offense it faces.
A fully healthy Tariq Castro-Fields is an All-Big Ten caliber player, and I love the young trio of Keaton Ellis, Joey Porter Jr., and OF COURSE Marquis Wilson. Toss in a hopefully healthy Donovan Johnson as a slot cornerback, and this group goes five deep with a nice combination of experience, size, speed, and #swag.
3. DEFENSIVE LINE
Honestly, defensive end and defensive tackle are pretty interchangeable, so I’m grouping them together. I think both have legitimate strengths (depth at defensive tackle, and talent/athleticism at defensive end) while also have legitimate questions (depth at defensive end, and the lack of tried-and-true 3-tech at defensive tackle). If I had to give the edge to one over the other, I’d probably go defensive end just because it has the best player (Shaka Toney) of the group. But on paper, both positions seem to be in a pretty good spot — especially if guys like Jayson Oweh, Adisa Isaac, and PJ Mustipher make expected jumps.
To be honest, I think the biggest question along the defensive line is how new defensive line coach John Scott Jr. performs. He’s one of Brent Pry’s guys and I trust Pry more than just about any coach on staff, but replacing Sean Spencer won’t be easy. We had gotten to the point where Spence could have trotted out Isaac Lutz at defensive tackle, and I would have just assumed he’d give the defensive line quality snaps.
For the most part, Penn State’s safeties have been strong in run support throughout the years. That continued last year, too, with Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker both flashing when attacking the line of scrimmage. What Penn State has lacked for decades — going all the way back to the Paterno Era — is the “centerfield” safety that can roam the backend of the zone. That was the major question we had about the safeties last year, and that’s the question that we still have this offseason. Can it be Wade? Can it be Brisker? Can it JUCO Ji’Ayir Brown? Can it be the highly-talented redshirt freshman Tyler Rudolph? It remains to be seen. But that question continues to be the most concerning for the Penn State defense heading into 2020.