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Way-Too-Early 2021 Penn State Football Depth Chart: Defense

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Projecting the starting 11 for Brent Pry’s group.

Brandon Smith Before A Play against Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As is tradition here at BSD, let’s take a look at a “Way-Too-Early” depth chart for the 2021 season. We did the offense last Wednesday, while today we dive in on the defense. Two things to note:

  1. A lot of the depth pieces can change within the next few days just based on the transfer portal. I’ll update this post if any major shakeups happen.
  2. With the 2020 season not counting for eligibility, it has really confused things on what to call someone like Parker Washington. Is he a sophomore? Is he a freshman? What about Sean Clifford: redshirt senior or redshirt junior? We’ll wait to see what Penn State Athletics ends up listing everyone at, but in the meantime, we are going to go with their eligibility as if 2020 counted; i.e. Parker Washington is a sophomore. Maybe that will still lead to confusion, but it’s at least consistent.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

3T: Hakeem Beamon (RS SO) — D’Von Ellies (RS SO) — Coziah Izzard (RS FR)
1T: PJ Mustipher (SR) — Derrick Tangelo (RS SR) — Fred Hansard (RS SR)

Like I said about running back offensively, I think defensive tackle is my favorite under-the-radar storyline heading into spring practice. I think they’re good, but should I trust them? I think they have depth, but yet do they actually? Let’s get into it.

PJ Mustipher hasn’t quite lived up to his multiple-time all-conference billing I thought he could hit, but the nice thing about Mustipher was that even if he wasn’t Austin Johnson 2.0, his floor was “solid, dependable starter” which he’s been. His stats haven’t been gaudy — he had just 1.5 TFLs and 1 sack on the season — but so often for defensive tackles, stats don’t tell the entire story. If you watched every Penn State game (MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON YOU), there were very few times were Mustipher was the focus of your frustration.

One of the reasons I don’t think Mustipher has quite reached his peak (yet) is that in 2020, he was pushed to the 3-Tech so that Antonio Shelton could play the 1-Tech. While Mustipher provided the best combination of power, speed, and quickness between the two, it is clear that Mustipher’s ideal role is as a 1-Tech. That’s why, despite Penn State bringing in Duke graduate transfer defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo, I have Hakeem Beamon starting. Why? Because Tangelo is much closer to Shelton in largely being a 1-Tech, while Beamon is a 3-Tech all the way. Sure, we’ll see Mustipher-Tangelo play together, but I like the fit with Beamon more as it’ll let Mustipher do what he’s best at.

Projecting Beamon as the starter also has to do with, you know, Beamon being an intriguing player. Last year this time, he was a swing defensive end/tackle who was listed at 260 pounds. He came into the season much bigger (listed 298 pounds), and broke into the rotation over more experienced players like Fred Hansard and Judge Culpepper. Beamon still needs some seasoning, but he’s a kid who pops athletically, and his pass rushing ability just gives the defensive tackles a dimension they haven’t had since Kevin Givens was in Happy Valley. Big offseason ahead.

If Beamon isn’t quite ready to be a starter, then the aforementioned Tangelo will be the option. I won’t sit here and say I watched a ton of Duke games (I was 0-2 when betting against them so I stopped watching out of protest), so I’m not a Tangelo expert. I haven’t locked myself in a dark room and went over the film. I think he might provide a little more consistency than Shelton, but I think they are around the same caliber of player — Tangelo just might be a better fit next to Mustipher.

Beyond the top three, I think we’ll see more of D’Von Ellies in 2021. The redshirt sophomore was beginning to break into the rotation by season’s end. He’s slightly undersized at 6-foot-1, 296 pounds, but with another offseason, he should be in the 305-pound area. Plus, he’s Samoan, which means he’s supremely tough.

Having a redshirt senior like Fred Hansard as your third-string 1-Tech is a very nice luxury. Being able to bring in a 6-foot-3, 324-pound 23-year-old who is fresh and not fatigued for 5-15 snaps per game is a nice role for him.

Rounding out the three-deep, I have Coziah Izzard who actually got some run during the Illinois game. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 281 pounds so he’ll need to add 15-20 pounds this offseason, which shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Like Beamon, he’s another player who offers a little bit more in the pass rushing department.

Waiting in the wings are some other intriguing options. Redshirt sophomore Joseph Darkwa is still raw which isn’t surprising since he played his high school ball in Germany. At 6-foot-5, 293 pounds though, he has tons of potential. Cole Brevard was one of the crown jewels of the 2020 class; wouldn’t be surprised if he pushed Hansard for his spot on the three-deep. Also, don’t forget redshirt freshman Fatorma Mulbah who just started playing in 2015 when he moved to the United States from Liberia.

DEFENSIVE END

Strongside: Adisa Isaac (JR) — Smith Vilbert (RS SO) — Amin Vanover (RS FR)
Weakside: Arnold Ebiketie (RS SR) — Nick Tarburton (RS JR) — Zuriah Fisher (RS FR)

I think it’s safe to say defensive end is the biggest question mark for the defense. They have to replace two starters in Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh, and the only returning legitimate rotation piece is Adisa Isaac. The 6-foot-4, 251-pound Isaac had an impressive freshman season in 2019, racking up 3 TFLs and 1.5 sacks in very limited action. He was expected to be a bigger part of the rotation in 2020, to the point that I predicted he would lead the Nittany Lions in sack. That, uh, ended up not happening. Isaac didn’t see nearly the amount of playing time most people thought he would, and even during his snaps, he didn’t fill up the stat sheet, finishing his sophomore season with just 13 tackles, 1.5 TFLs and sacks.

Still, Isaac is a talented player who despite the quiet 2020 season, is primed for a breakout year in 2021. I still trust in the all-around ability of Isaac (he’s a former Top 100 recruit who is only going into year three), and partly thanks to the lack of options in the defensive end room, he will see a lot of time come hell or high water. Because of that, he very well could be the most important player on the defense. Penn State needs him to take that next step.

While Isaac is the only returning rotation piece, the Nittany Lions did land a big fish on the transfer market in Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie. The former Owl had a breakout season in 2020, totaling 8.5 TFLs and 4 sacks in 6 games, good enough for second-team all-AAC honors. Of course, the step up in competition from the AAC to the Big Ten is something to consider. Plus, Ebiketie is far from a finished product. He lacks diversified pass rush moves, often relying on speed to get around offensive tackles. He’s also just 235 pounds, so you’d like to see him be closer to the 250-pound area. But, like Isaac, the talent is there.

Behind Isaac and Ebiketie will be Smith Vilbert and Nick Tarburton, who really haven’t seen a ton of time during their Penn State careers. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound Vilbert was a raw prospect coming out of high school, so he wasn’t really expected to contribute until this coming season anyway. Tarburton meanwhile has dealt with some nagging injuries that have stunted his development. If he’s healthy, he could be an adequate option on the two-deep.

The Nittany Lions still have Amin Vanover at defensive end — that is, all 6-foot-4, 279 pounds of him. His longterm position will still be defensive tackle, but in the mean time, I hope Vanover likes celery. There’s also Zuriah Fisher — who is currently listed at linebacker — but given the chance for playing time at defensive end, making the move this offseason seems like the best move for all. Fisher was listed as 6-foot-3, 244 pounds as a frosh so if he opts out of the celery for something with a little more substance to it, he shouldn’t have much issue getting to 255 pounds.

Defensive end is rightly a question mark, but the talent is there. Isaac was a Top 100 recruit. Ebiketie has produced at a very high level in the best G5 conference. Vilbert, Vanover, Fisher, and Tarburton were all four-stars coming out of high school. There’s work to be done by defensive line coach John Scott Jr, but it’s not a room that lacks the #starz.

LINEBACKER

Will: Brandon Smith (JR) — Charlie Katshir (RS JR) — Kobe King (FR)
Mike: Jesse Luketa (SR) — Ellis Brooks (RS SR) — Tyler Elsdon (RS FR)
Sam: Curtis Jacobs (SO) — Lance Dixon (RS SO) — Jamari Buddin (FR)

As you can see, there’s some moving pieces here at linebacker. We’re moving Jesse Luketa from the Will to the Mike, Brandon Smith from the Sam to the Will, and Lance Dixon from the Will to the Sam. What’s the basis for the moves? Well, it just seems like a more natural fit for all involved.

Smith is athletic as heck and rangy as all get-out, so I got the idea of playing him at the Sam. Generally speaking, putting plus athletes in space is a good idea. And with Micah Parsons firmly entrenched as the Will, if Penn State wanted to get Smith on the field, it was going to have to be at the Sam. Once Parsons opted out though, the Nittany Lions stuck with Smith at the Sam. While he did get more comfortable as the year went along — he finished with 8 TFLs — Smith is more valuable playing in the box. Stick him at the Will, let him attack, and I’m confident he’ll reach all-conference honors in 2021.

As for Luketa, he’s a massive linebacker at 6-foot-3, 242 pounds. I honestly wouldn’t hate a move to defensive end. But if Penn State is committed to Luketa at linebacker, it needs to be as a Mike. He just doesn’t have the athleticism to play on the outside. Let Luketa play in a phone booth, let him make the calls for the defense, and when possible, bring him off the field on obvious passing downs.

At the Sam, I love the potential competition between Curtis Jacobs and Dixon. Both are superb athletes; Dixon was once thought to be a safety recruit, while Jacobs could have played wide receiver at some FBS schools. As we saw with Brandon Smith this year though, the Sam can be a tough spot for a young linebacker to play. For the majority of their playing careers, these guys were asked to attack the line of scrimmage. Now, they are being asked to drop back and play coverage. Not the easiest transition. But I trust the talent and athleticism of both Jacobs and Dixon. Would be happy to see either out there come Wisconsin.

Brooks takes over as the backup Mike linebacker. I know PFF graded him out as the best linebacker for Penn State last season, but I personally didn’t see it. It would be nice if the Charlie Katshir could stay healthy; he’d be a solid option as a backup at the Will and the Sam, and man, does this linebacker room need some depth. Wouldn’t be surprised if they are active in the portal here.

SAFETY

FS: Jaquan Brisker (SR) — Jonathan Sutherland (RS SR) — Tyler Rudolph (RS SO)
SS: Keaton Ellis (JR) — Ji’Ayir Brown (SR) — Enzo Jennings (RS FR)

With the return of Tariq Castro-Fields and the transfer of South Carolina’s John Dixon, I would be surprised if one of Penn State’s cornerbacks didn’t make the move to safety. As you can see here, I think the most likely candidate for that is Keaton Ellis. He’ll need to put on a bit more mass (he’s listed at 185 pounds), but I think his ability and skill set is a nice fit at safety. Plus, I’m just a fan of getting the best players on the field. If you look at the secondary, I think Castro-Fields, Jaquan Brisker, Joey Porter Jr, and Ellis are four of the best players, so moving Ellis to safety allows you to have those four on the field at the same time more often. That’s smart.

If Ellis doesn’t make the move to safety, I think there’s a couple different ways this group could shake out. The return of Brisker is massive though, not just because he’s a good player but because he’s versatile. He played free safety last year, which in Brent Pry’s defense, is usually playing closer to the line of scrimmage. I think that’s the spot he likely sticks at, but don’t be surprised if he moves or sees more snaps at strong safety. That role would allow him to play a “centerfield” role more, which could be beneficial for Brisker’s draft stock and Penn State as a whole.

For this exercise though, let’s assume Brisker stays at and sees most of his snaps at free safety. The strong safety spot is likely a three-man competition between: Ji’Ayir Brown, Tyler Rudolph, and Enzo Jennings. No offense to Jonathan Sutherland, but he has speed and quickness questions as a free safety, so putting him at strong safety in a starting role would not be ideal.

Out of Brown, Rudolph, and Jennings, Brown saw the largest amount of snaps last season, but it should be noted that his snaps dwindled as the season went along. It was clear a step up from JUCO to the Big Ten was too drastic for Brown to handle, which really isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Sure, it would have been cool if he came in and the fit was seamless. But in all reality, last season should serve as an elongated spring practice for Brown. I still think he ends up a solid safety.

Rudolph and Jennings fit a similar bill. Once thought to be corner prospects early in their high school careers, it became more obvious later on that their futures would be at safety. Both bring a top-tier blend of athleticism and size — 6-foot-0, 203 pounds for Rudolph and 6-foot-1, 197 pounds for Jennings — to the safety position, though the snaps for each where limited in 2020. We’ll see if they can break through in 2021.

CORNERBACK

CB: Tariq Castro-Fields (SR) — John Dixon (JR) — Joseph Johnson III (RS FR)
CB: Joey Porter Jr (RS SO) — Marquis Wilson (JR) — Daequan Hardy (RS SO)

The position with the most depth, cornerback now finds itself as a strength of the defense. Even in this alternate scenario world where Keaton Ellis gets moved to safety, the Nittany Lions still have four players returning with starting experience in Tariq Castro-Fields, Joey Porter Jr, Marquis Wilson, and the South Carolina transfer John Dixon. Plus, despite not “starting” any games, Daequan Hardy saw a lot of snaps this season.

Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr are very likely your starters on the outside, which gives the Nittany Lions tremendous length from cornerback No. 1 and No. 2. Castro-Fields checks in at a wiry 6-foot even, while Porter Jr is even lankier, sporting 6-foot-2 frame. Even when Castro-Fields and Porter Jr come off the field, Penn State will still have good size at cornerback, as Dixon (6-foot-0) and Wilson (5-foot-11) don’t lack length.

Even if Castro-Fields and Porter Jr are your starters, with how often Penn State should go with a 4-2-5 look — which usually leads to another cornerback, not safety, coming on the field — there will be plenty of snaps to go around. I think you could see a whole host of Nittany Lions get run in that third “slot” cornerback spot. Hardy manned the spot for much of last season, and due to his quickness and shorter frame, makes him a strong candidate for the role. But I even like the idea of Wilson and perhaps Castro-Fields seeing some snaps in the slot against certain teams. I’m sure they’ll toy with a couple different rotations this spring, but regardless of how it shakes out, it’s sure nice to have the options they do.