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Three Reasons for Concern in 2021: Defense

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When all three levels have questions, I find it hard to be overly bullish

Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

We continue our look at the 2021 season, which has so far considered the good and bad on offense, as well as the good on defense. Why not take a gander at the bad on defense?

1. Where’d the Ends Go?

With the conclusion of the 2020 season, the starting defensive end combo of Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh have headed off to ply their trade on Sundays (hopefully). Behind them is . . . well, a lot of questions, to say the least.

The most likely starter on the team is Adisa Isaac, but the true junior has so far been buried on the depth chart. Through two seasons, he’s mustered 27 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. He’s also a touch on the light said, standing 6-foot-4 and 251 lbs. Isaac is going to be on a lot of breakout lists, but my concern is ending up like Oweh - that is, a good defensive end, athletically gifted, and just sort of “meh” on the stat sheet.

Opposite Isaac will be . . . somebody, I guess? With the transfer portal, it’s most likely senior Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie, who has a bit more to show for his time in college, mustering 58 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, and 6 sacks, but he’s even lighter than Isaac, at 6-foot-4 and 235 lbs. Do you trust a starting duo that average less than 240 pounds against some of the beefy Big Ten offensive lines out there?

The others on the roster include RS Jr Nick Tarburton, who has yet to fully pan out, RS So Smith Vilbert, RS Fr Bryce Mostella, and then incoming true freshman Rodney McGraw. Forgive me for being just a bit bearish on the status of the defensive ends in 2021.

2. Can the Linebackers Actually Back the Line?

There’s no doubting that Penn State suffered from the absence of Micah Parsons in 2020. He was the lynchpin not only of the linebacking corps, but the defense as a whole, and without him on the field, the defense suffered for it.

What’s inexcusable to me is just how poorly the remaining linebackers played in his stead. Brandon Smith was asked to play in coverage as the Sam, and looked lost more often than not; when he was allowed to come downhill with a head of steam, he was deadly, but having to drop and cover was not great.

Ellis Brooks continue to be so-so in the middle, and Jesse Luketa appeared slow and flat-footed. Why some others on the depth chart, including Lance Dixon (now transferred out to West Virginia) and Curtis Jacobs couldn’t crack the starting lineup, we’ll never truly know.

What does bother me is that for the most part, the linebacking unit in 2021 will be the same batch of players as 2020 - and I’m expected to treat that with anything other than pessimism? Sure, I’ve heard that Smith may move over to Will, and Jacobs may be headed to Sam, but it’s the same questionable performances just shuffled around a bit. Color me concerned.

3. I’ll take Safety Trouble for $300, Alex

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Penn State still doesn’t look great at the safety position. For as much as the CB room has gotten good, it seems the safety room is stuck in neutral.

Jaquan Brisker is back, and he admittedly appeared to turn a corner near the tail end of 2020. He should be fairly sound as the strong safety, but who plays opposite him? Jonathan Sutherland has been around forever, and has never locked down the position. Ji’Ayir Brown and Tyler Rudolph are back, but have yet to make their presence truly felt. Then there’s sophomore Enzo Jennings, a former 4-star who appeared in just one game in 2020, and did not record a single stat.

Perhaps the biggest boon to the group could be the departure of Tim Banks. Banks took over as the safeties coach in 2016, and under his tutelage the position has never been anything more than “on the field at the same time as the rest of the defense,” with the rare exception of a Marcus Allen, who seemingly surmounted the challenges in front of him with superior athleticism and character.

In Banks’ stead, Anthony Poindexter has joined the staff, and hopes to give the position a shot in the arm. Poindexter is going to have his work cut out for him to see if he can finally turn the ship around for the safeties. I won’t hold my breath.