Penn State’s season doesn’t start for another 225 days, but after that Rose Bowl victory and a productive transfer portal period, I am all riled up for the 2023 season. Not since 2017 have the expectations been so high for a Penn State team. With that being the case, let’s take a position-by-position look at what the Nittany Lions’ depth chart will look like next season. We’ll start with the defensive line today, and then work our way through the defense and then back through the offense by the end of next week.
DT: Hakeem Beamon (RS SR) — Zane Durant (SO) — Davon Townley (RS SO)
DT: Coziah Izzard (RS JR) — Dvon Ellies (RS SR) — Jordan van den Berg (RS SO)
Penn State says goodbye to All-Big Ten defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, but returns the rest of its three-deep at defensive tackle. Of course, the loss of Mustipher will be felt; there are only some many 6-foot-4, 320-pound human beings in the world who move like PJ does. But all in all, the Nittany Lions have to be pretty content with what they have coming back.
Leading the way is Hakeem Beamon, who did not record a sack despite the fact I predicted he’d lead all defensive tackles with sacks. But he did put up 6 TFLs this season, which is the most by a Penn State defensive tackle since Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens were wreaking havoc in 2018. His season was particularly impressive when you consider the fact it was his first game action since 2020, after he missed the 2021 season for undisclosed reasons. While Beamon will likely have to continue to add mass to his 263-pound frame, he’s a stable force on the defensive line, and someone who hasn’t reached his peak as a football player.
Who starts beside Beamon remains a mystery, but the early favorite is Coziah Izzard. After starting seven games in 2021, the 6-foot-3, 292-pound Izzard was primed for a breakout season in 2022, but was sidelined by a trip to Franklin’s doghouse. Izzard ended up not being available for the first four games of the season, and by the time he made his season debut against Northwestern, he was locked into a rotation spot as opposed to potentially being the starter next to Mustipher.
Despite the delayed start and subsequent minimized role, Izzard was quite productive for the Nittany Lions, finishing the year with 2 sacks and 4 TFLs in just 9 games played. So the good news is that the talent is absolutely there; it’s just a matter of taking that next step of consistency while not taking any more trips to Franklin’s doghouse.
Battling it out with Izzard will be Dvon Ellies, who has enjoyed a pivotal backup role during each of the last two seasons. Although he lacks the length or explosiveness of some of the other defensive tackles on the roster, he’s proven to be a steadying presence over his career, especially when it comes to defending the run. He might not have the upside of Beamon or Izzard, but his stoutness in the run game is something the team will have to rely on.
If there’s an x-factor, it’s probably Zane Durant. The true freshman was someone who was generating legitimate buzz last spring and summer, but the buzz didn’t turn into a ton of production as Durant finished the season with just 5 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 sack. That shouldn’t cause too much concern though. Durant was just 276 pounds last season, and was likely to need another full offseason to put on the necessary mass and become comfortable with the added size. Big spring ahead for him, where I expect to hear a regeneration of that buzz.
Don’t forget about Jordan van den Berg, either. He had an interesting path to Penn State, having played at Iowa Western C.C. for the JUCO Spring Season in 2021. He winded up camping as a recruit at Penn State in the summer of 2021, earned an offer, committed, and enrolled all in the matter of a couple of days. He redshirted the 2021 season, but broke into the rotation in 2022, seeing 150+ snaps throughout the year. He was listed at 295 pounds this fall, so he could be someone who gets north of 300 pounds come 2023, which would be a nice come up for the defensive tackle room as a unit.
DE: Adisa Isaac (RS SR) — Amin Vanover (RS JR) — Smith Vilbert (RS SR)
DE: Chop Robinson (JR) — Dani Dennis-Sutton (SO) — Zuriah Fisher (RS JR)
I love the defensive ends. Like love-love them. If the defensive end group was a girl, I’d totally take her out for a moderately-expensive dinner and would let her get whatever appetizer (limited to one) she wanted. That level of love. It’s just a stacked group that very well could be the best in the Big Ten. I just hope *knock on wood* that it doesn’t see any transfer portal movement come April and May because it has that perfect blend of experience, production, and talent.
Returning as starters are Adisa Isaac and Chop Robinson, who became just the second defensive end pairing at Penn State to put up at least 10 TFLs in the same season since 2009. The only other duo? Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller in 2018, who finished the season with an astounding 20 TFLs and 15 TFLs, respectively. While Isaac (11 TFLs) and Chop (10 TFLs) weren’t quite at that level, it does put into perspective their play this season. It’s especially impressive when you consider that Isaac missed all of the 2021 season with an injury, while Chop was making the transition from linebacker to defensive end without a spring practice to aid him. No reason to believe either of those two — especially Chop — have reached their potential just yet.
Speaking of potential, Penn State will have Dani Dennis-Sutton who projects as the third defensive end in the rotation. It was a solid inaugural season for the former Top 100 prospect, making 17 tackles, 3 sacks, and picking off a pass in his limited snaps, which was good enough to garner freshman All-American honors according to ESPN. Next season though, Penn State should be expecting more than limited snaps from Dennis-Sutton. Although he may not be a “starter” in name, he should very seriously push Isaac and Robinson for starting-level snap — he’s that talented.
Rounding out the two-deep will likely be Amin Vanover who, like Dennis-Sutton, popped during his limited snaps. He finished the season with 16 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 1 sack; very respectable numbers for someone who was Penn State’s fourth or fifth defensive end.
For me, it was a pleasant surprise that Vanover looked and played the way he did. Coming out of high school, he was largely looked at as someone who would wind up at defensive tackle. That did eventually happen at Penn State, with Vanover making the switch to the interior for parts of the 2021 season. The move didn’t stick though, as Vanover switched back to defensive end full-time for the 2022 season and dropped from 283 pounds to 264 pounds in the process. Normally, that would be a sign of someone without a definite position — not naturally big enough for DT, but not twitchy enough to play on the outside. While Vanover won’t ever be mistaken for Shaka Toney, I definitely saw a Big Ten-level athlete, and someone who would likely start at a number of other Power 5 programs.
Making up the three-deep is Zuriah Fisher and Smith Vilbert, two players who last year this time were looked at as players on Penn State’s second-team. Vilbert was fresh off of a three-sack performance against Arkansas, while
this some blogger literally named Fisher as one of the three most exciting players heading into spring practice. But instead of breakouts for either guy, it was a rough 2022. Fisher suffered an injury in spring practice that costed him the first 10 games of the season. Meanwhile, Vilbert wasn’t available for the entire regular season for undisclosed reasons. Ouch on both accounts. But in the coming weeks, spring will sprung, and so will another opportunity for Fisher and Vilbert to reestablish their spots in the rotation. Pivotal spring practice sessions for both in what might be the deepest position group on the roster.