EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of our annual position preview series. Be sure to check back over the next couple of weeks as we preview the rest of the positions in the lead-up to the 2020 season.
The Starters: Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh
Toney decided to return for his senior season, giving the group the steady leadership needed for it to blossom into a forceful unit during the 2020 season. Toney began his Penn State career as an undersized speed rusher, and has developed into a three-down defensive end who is one of the best in the conference, recently being named preseason first-team All Big Ten by Athlon. He has shown the ability to take over games, most notably against Indiana and Purdue during the past two seasons...let’s hope he has another four-sack performance saved up for Ohio State this fall.
Oweh’s freakish athleticism has been well-documented, and he continued to show steady improvement during his redshirt freshman season. Now is his time to put it all together in his first season as a full-time starter. Oweh had a strong 2019 for a reserve, with five sacks, two forced fumbles and 21 total tackles. Oweh has the ability and opportunity to more than double that sack total, and meet the lofty expectations that have been set for him.
The Key Reserves: Adisa Isaac, Shane Simmons, Nick Tarburton and Smith Vilbert
Simmons has proved serviceable as part of the rotation, and is looking to finally have the breakout season many were expecting long ago from the former five-star prospect. Simmons has the tools to become a dominating passrusher, but his development has been hindered as he’s dealt with several injuries throughout his career in Happy Valley. He will look to prove himself during his senior season after not gaining a sack in the 14 games he played in 2018 and 2019.
Isaac is coming off a promising true freshman season, and is another in line for a potential breakout season. Isaac’s numbers were solid, with 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. While they do not necessarily jump off the screen, Isaac was easily noticeable whenever he was on the field, regularly impacting plays. This is a characteristic seen in many recent Penn State defensive linemen who went on to have massively successful careers, and Isaac should be joining that list soon. Like Oweh, Isaac has exceptional speed and will give opponents fits with his explosiveness off the snap.
Tarburton is a former four-star prospect, but has yet to find his role after two seasons. He took a redshirt season in 2018, and did not appear in any games in 2019. Vilbert is a three-star prospect who will be entering his first year of eligibility. He appeared in two games as a redshirt freshman, and was named the Developmental Squad’s Defensive Player of the Year - surely a promising sign for what’s ahead as he continues to develop.
The Departures: Yetur Gross-Matos and Daniel Joseph
Gross-Matos’ productivity will not be easy to replace. The now Carolina Panther has been among the best pass rushers in the Big Ten during the past two seasons, regularly killing drives before they had much of a chance to get far. During the past two seasons, Gross-Matos helped force the offense off the field quote often, managing 17 sacks and 34.5 TFLs.
Joseph showed promise when he saw the field, contributing seven tackles and 1.5 sacks in just four games in 2019. With a tough road ahead to fight for more playing time, Joseph decided to transfer to NC State for his final two years of eligibility.
The Additions: Zuriah Fisher, Amin Vanover, Bryce Mostella and Brandon Taylor
Fisher is the big name of the four defensive ends who will join the Nittany Lions in 2020. He was rated as the 171st overall prospect in this year’s class, as well as the third-best prospect in Pennsylvania. However, don’t be surprised to see one of the other three turn heads and make an unexpected immediate impact, as we’ve seen time and time again for this position group.
Penn State’s defensive end unit is loaded with speed and promise, led by its star Shaka Toney. However, promise will need to become reality early on in the 2020 season for the group to live up to the lofty standards set in recent years of tenacious defensive line play.
The group will be led by Brent Pry protegee John Scott Jr., who replaces Sean Spencer after he departed for the same position with the New York Giants. Scott Jr. comes to Happy Valley after coaching the defensive line for the South Carolina Gamecocks last season, and the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2017 and 2018.
The key for this group will be to apply more consistent pressure after disappearing for stretches at times last fall. This will be especially important as the secondary breaks in some new faces after struggling during the latter part of the 2019 season. Breakout seasons by Oweh and Isaac will go a long ways towards accomplishing this, and once again having one of the best defensive lines in the nation.