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Three Reasons for Optimism in 2021: Defense

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Call me Mr. Brightside.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The spring brings us some of sport’s greatest traditions. March Madness. The Master’s. And me becoming irrationally high on Penn State’s defense.

1. Best Cornerbacks in the Big Ten?

When it comes to having faith in what this defense can be, it begins with the cornerbacks, which offers a unique blend of experience and talent.

Penn State returns four players with starting experience at the position: Tariq Castro-Fields, Joey Porter Jr, Keaton Ellis, and Marquis Wilson, all having started at least one game during their time in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions added to that experience when they landed former South Carolina starting cornerback John Dixon via the transfer portal, giving Penn State another cornerback with Power 5 starting experience.

The Nittany Lions also got a boost from the 2021 recruiting class, as early enrollee Kalen King has been a standout during spring practices. Tariq Castro-Fields told media members that King has the chance to be “real special.” While it will be difficult for King to see a lot of time given what’s in front of him, his emergence as a potential “green light” player gives Terry Smith another piece to play with.

With how talented and experienced the cornerback group is, I think we’ll see a lot of three-cornerback packages in 2021. It’s a big group — all are listed at at least 5-foot-11, with Wilson being the only one under 185 pounds — so you aren’t really sacrificing much size if you go with three corners instead of three safeties in a 4-2-5.

This group isn’t without improvement needed; the Nittany Lions’ cornerbacks accounted for just one interception last season, and it didn’t come until Keaton Ellis snagged one in the last game of the season. To be the best in the conference, that has to be better. Yes, a big part of cornerback play is forcing the quarterback to not throw your way, but for defenses in this era to flourish, the secondary needs to force turnovers. That’ll be the big question for Castro-Fields and Co. in 2021, but like I seemingly always do with the cornerbacks, I am buying stock.

2. Brandon Smith Gonna Suplex Somebody

For most of the 2020 season, Linebacker U didn’t live up to its moniker. Whether it was in the running game or dropping into coverage, the linebacker play wasn’t at where it needed to be at. A big reason for that? Penn State was without all-world-everything Micah Parsons. The loss of Parsons can’t be understated enough; he was a “game wrecker” in every sense of the word, and without his abilities, the linebacker player faltered.

The hope was that former five-star recruit Brandon Smith would take over Parsons’ in-the-box Will linebacker spot. Instead, Pry opted to keep Smith in the more coverage heavy Sam role, and it certainly took some time for Smith to become comfortable. Fortunately for Penn State, Smith began to look better as the season went on, and capped off the 2020 season with an 8-tackle, 3-TFL performance against Illinois, highlighting the freaky potential that he possesses.

For Penn State’s defense to be at a championship level, it needs that Brandon Smith to be around more often — someone who can completely blow up a game because he’s living in the backfield. I mean, we look back on Smith’s 2020 season and think of how much better he could have played, and despite that, he still finished the year with 37 tackles, 8 TFLs, and 2 sacks. Multiply that out to a full 13-game season, and Smith would have ended the year with 60 tackles, 13 TFLs, 3 sacks — not too shabby for an out-of-the-box linebacker.

For Smith this offseason, it will be about refining his game; thinking less and simply reacting more. With a full, normal offseason in the midst, I believe we will see a more complete Brandon Smith out there in 2021 — which is good news for me, but very bad news for quarterbacks and running backs. Because you know where Brandon Smith is going to take quarterbacks and running backs? To Suplex City.

3. Mustipher-led Defensive Tackles

I wrote about the defensive tackles back in January, and basically said that I think they’re good but I’m not sure if I should trust them. After stewing on it for a couple of months, I am feeling more and more confident in the group — specifically, what I think will be the “starting” trio of PJ Mustipher, Hakeem Beamon, and Derrick Tangelo. I put “starting” in quotes because obviously just two of them will get the nod as starters, but I think all three see “starting-level” reps.

Mustipher will assuredly be a starter, and hopefully will be playing his more natural 1-Technique spot. For those of us who have been hoping for less Mustipher at the 3-Tech and more Mustipher at the 1-Tech, I think we’ll finally get our wish — Mustipher has bulked up to 326 pounds, which is up from his previous heaviest weight of 311 pounds as a sophomore. Connecting the dots here, but that drastic of a weight gain was likely with the idea of a shift in Mustipher’s role.

Sticking with the weight changing theme, Beamon actually dropped a significant amount of weight, going from 298 pounds to 269 pounds. This isn’t all that uncommon for defensive tackles though because as you can imagine, it’s not all that natural to be 300 pounds. Robert Windsor used to drop a good bit of weight during the offseasons, and would then pack it back on during the summer. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is what Beamon is doing as well, and that he’ll eventually work his way back up to 285-290.

Anyway, weight changes aside, I am the proud conductor of the Beamon Hype Train. He just brings about a different level of quickness and athleticism to the defensive tackle group that Penn State hasn’t had since Kevin Givens. And like Givens, I think we will see Beamon slide out to defensive end against certain teams. I’m not saying that Beamon will be Givens 2.0, but if he does end up being Givens 2.0 I am taking credit.