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PAT Talks: Oh Brother This Defensive Front Seven

This is like a TED talk but it’s more so incoherent rambling.

TED2018: The Age of Amazement Photo by Lawrence Sumulong/Getty Images

I started writing this article as a “Three Things I Want To See Against Minnesota”, but as I was writing it, it turned into a soliloquy on Penn State’s defensive front seven. What happened? How did we get here? Is there any hope? Why am I shirtless? Welcome to my TED PAT Talk.

Defensive Line: Is Size Important?

If you missed the game Saturday, Penn State gave up over 400 rushing yards to Michigan. That is bad. Really bad. After the game, James Franklin said that Penn State’s defensive line was “undersized in some spots”, which there is some truth to that. The starters for Penn State — PJ Mustipher (318 pounds), Hakeem Beamon (264 pounds), Adisa Isaac (243 pounds), and Chop Robinson (239 pounds) — come out to average 266 pounds. For comparison, Penn State’s opponent come this Saturday, Minnesota, averages 275 pounds on the defensive line. The following week? Ohio State comes in at 283 pounds.

Penn State does rotate in a legitimate two-deep at defensive end and defensive tackle though, where the numbers come out to be more in range with their Big Ten counterparts when you take out the two outliers in Beamon and Chop. A defensive line of Coziah Izzard (292 pounds), Dvon Ellies (295 pounds), Amin Vanover (264 pounds), and Nick Tarburton (258 pounds) averages 277 pounds so this whole notion that Penn State has a G5-sized defensive line is wrong. Yes, having two 310+ pounders at defensive tackle would be beautiful as they are bookended by 6’6, 265 defensive ends, but that is not the norm in college football, and not necessary to prevent your defense from getting clowned on the ground like Penn State did. Yes, the Nittany Lions did not match up physically with the Michigan offensive line, but the domination was much more about out-scheming and out-game planning than it was about brute force against a smaller front.

All that being said, there certainly is something to Penn State being more built to defend spread offenses than they are run-heavy teams like the Michigans and Minnesotas of the world. I don’t think anyone would argue that. James Franklin has prioritized speed, quickness, and athleticism which — unless you are Alabama, Georgia, or Ohio State — will come at a cost of size. But this has always been the case under Franklin. In 2019, they started 243-pound Shaka Toney and 285-pound Robert Windsor on a defensive line that led the way for Penn State’s defense to finish 1st in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per carry. So this program has shown in the past that it’s capable of stopping the run even if it’s “undersized.”

Part of the reason for that? The ability to make adjustments. I know Pry had some stinkers against Illinois in 2021 or Iowa in 2020, but largely, moves were made to stop or prevent the bleeding. Having Marcus Allen act as a fourth linebacker against Minnesota in 2016. Playing Kevin Givens at defensive end against the aforementioned run-heavier teams in 2017. Bringing in Micah Parsons over Koa Farmer against Wisconsin in 2018.

That’s what we really didn’t see from Manny Diaz on Saturday. He came in with a plan, stuck with it through halftime probably because they were holding up in the red zone, and then the floor fell out through under them. There’s something admirable in having faith in your base defense and concepts, but utilize the options that this talented Penn State defense has. The same way we’ve seen Curtis Jacobs as a pass rusher on third downs, there’s absolutely a role for someone like Beamon at defensive end to get a little more beef on the field against teams that want to run the ball. How does a Vanover-Mustipher-Izzard-Beamon four-man front sound on short yardage situations? Manny, BREAK OUT THE BEEF!

Linebacker: Reaping What You Sow

During the 2018 Penn State-Michigan State game, I said that for the entire fourth quarter I saw the bullet slowly coming toward my face. I knew something bad was going to happen, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Just wait for that bullet to make contact with my ol’ noggin. Well, that’s how we all felt about linebacker heading into the season, and boy oh boy, did it show up in all its glory against Michigan. The defensive line — as noted above — did not play well and got a big brunt of the anger from Penn State fans on Saturday, but linebacker was even worse.

Remember Gino Capone? Josh Hull? Or Chris Colasanti? Maybe a Jan Johnson? All the previous linebackers that were the whipping boys of the fan base? Because I do. And I really miss them after watching this linebacker core. I mean, Josh Hull would be like manna from heaven for this team right now.

The tough part for Penn State is that they really don’t have many options right now, and they have no one to blame but themselves. If there’s one position they have not emphasized in recruiting and in the transfer portal, it’s been linebacker. From 2019-2021, they took six linebackers — Brandon Smith (‘19), Lance Dixon (‘19), Tyler Elsdon (‘20), Curtis Jacobs (‘20), Jamari Buddin (‘21), and Kobe King (‘21). Smith and Dixon are gone, while Penn State decided to remain idle at linebacker in the transfer portal this offseason because they felt none of the “options would have improved their football team.” Yikes.

It’s easy for a blogger like me to sit behind my computer and complain that the starters aren’t good enough and to try something else, but come on: they have to try something else. Even if it means taking some lumps with Abdul Carter at the MIKE so he can play more with Curtis Jacobs, they have to do that. Because you know what? There are going to be lumps regardless. Might as well put out the 6-foot-4, 235-pound athletic freak for the lumps.