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Penn State Football All-Decade First-Team Defense

It’s time for the very best of the decade.

Illinois at Penn State Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Defensive Line

DE: Carl Nassib
DE: Yetur Gross-Matos
DT: Devon Still
DT: Anthony Zettel

Talk about a fearsome unit. Not only is it an incredible collection of talent, it also represents teams well throughout the course of the decade.

Nassib was sparingly used as a reserve who had never started a football game, at any level, prior to his senior season at Penn State. By the time December rolled around, Nassib was a consensus All-American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and winner of the Lombardi and Hendricks Awards. He finished the season with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles - without even playing the final three games of the season.

Gross-Matos showed potential immediately as a true freshman, only to blossom into one of the Big Ten’s most fearsome defensive ends for the following two seasons. He was just as good at stopping the run as he was getting after the quarterback, making play after play in the opponents backfield. The most recent member of the All-Decade team (along with a certain mullet-sporting punter), Gross-Matos’ productivity will be hard to replace in 2020.

Still was an absolute menace in the trenches, and is among the recent greats on the Nittany Lions defensive line this century. While Still had a consistent career of being a playmaker, he really stood out as a junior as he was named consensus All-American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year of Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.

Zettel was one of those players who jumped off the screen immediately, then went from splashy role player to one of the most exciting defensive tackles you will find anywhere. His best season came in 2014 as a junior, when he totaled 17 TFLs, eight sacks, and somehow managed to lead the team in interceptions with three — including a pick-six that launched a comeback to force double overtime against eventual national champs Ohio State.

The Linebackers

LB: Gerald Hodges
LB: Michael Mauti
LB: Micah Parsons

If anyone happened to make it to the line of scrimmage, one of these three would be there to greet him.

Hodges exemplified the intensity of Linebacker U. He was a living tackling machine (finishing with 100-plus tackles in his last two seasons in Happy Valley), stopping everything in his path and delivering punishing blows that wore ballcarriers down.

Mauti was the Paul Posluszney of the 2010s, doing whatever the defense needed at that moment. Need an open-field tackle to prevent a big play? He’s on it. Need to get after the quarterback? Mauti will find a way. Need a tackle behind the line of scrimmage to get the ball back? How about a momentum-shifting turnover? He always delivered on the field. And don’t forget off the field — as the team leader of the 2012 squad, Mauti helped keep the program intact after the NCAA swooped in in an attempt to make it irrelevant for the next decade or more. Mauti just would not allow it.

Parsons led the team in tackles as a true freshman despite not even being a starter. He followed that up by again leading the team in tackles as a true sophomore while becoming a human highlight reel who at times looked like a combination of LaVar Arrington and Lawrence Taylor. If the 2020 season is played, that one season will probably be enough to get Parsons on the next All-Decade squad.

The Secondary

CB: Jordan Lucas
CB: John Reid
S: Adrian Amos
S: Marcus Allen

Lucas and Amos may have had the most underrated careers in Happy Valley during the past decade. They both did their jobs well enough to be avoided by both quarterbacks and the media, and never received the proper honors and awards for their play on the field. It’s no surprise that both have found longstanding success in the NFL, with Amos developing into a standout in Green Bay and Lucas earning a Super Bowl ring with the Chiefs.

Reid likely would have been the standout of the secondary for the decade if not for a knee injury that knocked him out for the entirety of the 2017 season. It was a significant blow, as the two losses that occurred that season were the result of late comebacks when the secondary could not muster one last stop to ice games against Ohio State and Michigan State. Reid was able to return to lead the secondary in 2018, and was back to his old ways after shaking off some early rust.

Allen was thrown into the fire as a true freshman in 2014, becoming a mainstay in the secondary through his senior year in 2017. Allen brought a certain attitude to the Penn State defense with his penchant for blowing up plays with a devastating hit, making the right play at just the right time, and those infamous post-game locker room celebrations that had the fanbase flocking to Twitter and waiting to join the fun.

The Punter

P: Blake Gillikin

Penn State had a long tradition of standout punters that seemed to come to an end around the start of the decade. The Gillikin came in and gave the program a star at the position, constantly making a huge difference to win the field position battle, quietly helping the team’s success far more than he gets credit for. Gillikin was the starter from day one, and left at the end of the 2019 season with his name all over the Penn State record books.

The Return Man

Saquon Barkley

I was set with KJ Hamler in this spot, but if it came down to one return to make something happen, Barkley would have to be the guy. His vision is unmatched by just about everyone not named Barry Sanders. Combine that with his pure explosiveness, Barkley would need to see the slightest of cracks and take off for the end zone. Barkley was named Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year as a junior in 2017, in addition to being recognized as the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year and Running Back of the Year.