When I was growing up, my father was a high school football coach. Throughout the year, I’d spend time out in the mildewed, fluorescent-lighted building that served as a coaches office near the field. I remember sitting in that office many days and staring up at the wall where names of that next year’s group of projected players were dangling on small keychain-like objects. As an 11-year-old, I’d wonder who was going to fill the void left from some graduating senior.
I don’t have my dining room walls adorned with a Penn State depth chart. Yet. But as a week of camp and some media availability has passed, here’s the best guess at what Penn State’s current defensive depth chart might look like with the opener against Purdue just a few weeks away.
1T - PJ Mustipher (SR - 6th year), Dvon Ellies (RS JR), Jordan van den Berg (RS FR)
3T - Coziah Izzard (RS SO), Hakeem Beamon (RS JR), Zane Durant (FR)
DE - Nick Tarburton (RS SR), Chop Robinson (SO), Amin Vanover (SO)
DE - Adisa Isaac (RS JR), Dani Dennis-Sutton (FR), Smith Vilbert (RS JR)
There’s talent here, without question. The storyline along the entire defensive line will be how these guys hold up over the course of a full season. Three projected starters have had injuries significantly impact their careers, starting with defensive tackle PJ Mustipher. He carried out that long fake following a first half injury at Iowa leading him back to campus this year where he will undoubtedly be the unit’s leader. Instead of getting his shot at the NFL this year, Mustipher hopes to rebuild his stock while also giving Penn State’s defensive front the toughness that they lacked later in the season, most notably against Illinois.
Hakeem Beamon is pushing at the other defensive tackle spot. After missing last year for… reasons, the redshirt junior figures to get plenty of snaps even if in this very unscientific preseason chart, I have him as a backup. Ellies and Izzard will see plenty of snaps, while Jordan van den Berg played a lot in the bowl game and freshman Zane Durant gained some buzz in the spring. One more potential name to watch is Rodney McGraw, who has moved down from defensive end.
At defensive end, let’s first mention returnee Nick Tarburton who has had a myriad of injuries during his time at Penn State before putting together a steady year as a part-time starter in 2021. But it’s three guys that didn’t play a down for Penn State in 2021 who will be relied on to help create a pass rush for first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Adisa Isaac was a primary backup in the shortened 2020 season where he recorded 1.5 sacks and appeared in all nine games. He seemed poised to make a jump in production before missing last year with an injury. Two newcomers will bring plenty of recruiting stars and hopefully some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Chop Robinson was a top-100 recruit and tallied 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last year with Maryland. Speaking of Maryland, Dennis-Sutton was an extremely heralded recruit and one of James Franklin’s biggest recruiting wins ever. The freshman did miss much of his last year of high school football with an injury, but the talent is certainly there to make an impact for Penn State in an area where they need help following the absences of Arnold Ebiketie (Atlanta Falcons), Jesse Luketa (Arizona Cardinals), and Zuriah Fisher (will miss this season with an injury).
Will - Curtis Jacobs (JR), Charlie Katshir (RS SR), Abdul Carter (FR)
Mike - Tyler Elsdon (RS SO) OR Kobe King (RS FR), Keon Wylie (FR)
Sam - Jonathan Sutherland (SR - 6th year), Jamari Buddin (RS FR), Cody Romano (RS SR)
Here’s the unit that was hit hardest by departures. Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks were both full-time starters and they’re now both in NFL camps. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Luketa spent some time playing linebacker last year. Now, it’s probable that Penn State won’t be lining up with three linebackers all that often, especially with depth in the secondary coupled with what most offenses are putting on the field in modern day college football. But, for the sake of this exercise, here’s what Penn State would likely be aligning.
Curtis Jacobs moves over to the Will spot. He started 11 games last year, made 60+ tackles, and displayed big-play ability. He’ll be on the field a lot and we can all feel good about that. Charlie Katshir, who has fought against injury throughout his career, provides some depth.
Beyond Jacobs, here’s a big bag of “wait and see”. I got to use the beloved OR designation that so commonly made its appearance on Penn State depth charts of years prior. Tyler Elsdon and Kobe King are locked in one of the biggest preseason position battles at the Mike spot. Meanwhile, Keon Wylie drew praise from James Franklin at a recent media day appearance, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see him pressing for some time.
Jonathan Sutherland moves to linebacker from a safety spot. Sutherland has been a special teams leader and captain. Now, he tries to prove his versatility by moving to linebacker. Snap counts with this group will be fascinating. There are clearly some young guys who could step up later in the year (Wylie, Carter, Buddin) or it might be a position that is somewhat marginalized by matchup and depth in the secondary.
S - Ja’Ayir Brown (SR+), Jaylen Reed (RS FR), Mehki Flowers (FR)
S - Keaton Ellis (JR) OR Zakee Wheatley (RS FR), KJ Winston (FR)
CB - Joey Porter Jr. (RS JR), Johnny Dixon (JR), Marquis Wilson (JR),
CB - Kalen King (SO), Daequan Hardy (RS JR), Jeffrey Davis Jr. (RS FR)
Starting with the safeties, Tig Brown hopes to replicate what his good friend Jaquan Brisker did last season: returning for an extra year and solidifying himself as an early round NFL draft pick. Brown earned all-Big Ten honors, snatched six interceptions, and seems poised to be one of the best defensive backs in the country. Meanwhile, I used the OR designation again. Keaton Ellis has played a lot of football in the past few years and started a game at safety last season. But, Zakee Wheatley had a well-documented good spring where he came up with a lot of turnovers. That kind of buzz would be welcome to a group that lost Brisker and his big-play ability. Some young guys (Reed, Flowers, Winston, maybe even Christian Driver - though he’s listed now as a corner) could make some impact on special teams or later in the season.
Joey Porter Jr. is back for a third year starting at cornerback. Assuming he can reign in the penalties, he figures to be in the mix for all-Big Ten honors and a call from the NFL. Meanwhile, Kalen King was the corner getting all the Spring 2021 and fall camp buzz before finding his way onto the field regularly last year as he appeared in all 13 games and started the Outback Bowl. Hardy must be mentioned too as he figures to play prominently as a slot corner, a spot where he made one start last season. That trio figures to play the bulk of the time at cornerback, but former South Carolina transfer Johnny Dixon and now back to full-time cornerback Marquis Wilson have also played a fair amount of snaps in their respective careers. Davis and Cam Miller are young guys to keep an eye on as the year progresses.
Any preseason depth chart is a puzzle, but this is one with some talented pieces. Concerns are certainly very real and legitimate at linebacker. Beyond Jacobs, well…
Ebiketie made us forget about fears at the defensive end spot right away with his performance at Wisconsin. He’s gone, but the triumvirate of Isaac, Robinson, and Dennis-Sutton gives hope that they can match production. Mustipher’s full health certainly solves an issue at defensive tackle and a full year of Beamon, who flashed some in 2020, should hold down the interior.
The secondary? It was absolutely a strength in 2021 and even with the loss of Brisker and the experience of Tariq Castro-Fields, there is enough on paper to show that Penn State should be able to rely on this unit. That group especially will be tested in the opener at Ross-Ade Stadium against Aiden O’Connell.
Depth charts do have a funny way of being rendered moot after the first drive or half or games of a season. Any other names you expect to move up quickly?