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Early 2023 Depth Chart: Secondary Set For Reload, Not Rebuild

Zakee Wheatley might be the coolest Penn State player.

Growing up a Penn State football fan in the 2000s, you could usually bet on a couple things. One, Larry Johnson Sr. was going to have a good defensive line. Two, Ron Vanderlinden was likely to have a linebacker corps that was filled with all-conference players. And three, the secondary’s bend-but-don’t-break philosophy would work against the large majority of opponents — until it really didn’t. Hi, Mark Sanchez.

Fast forward 15-20 years, and while the BBDB philosophy hasn’t totally gone by the wayside, this is a secondary that can go mano-y-mano with any passing attack in the country. Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith has done an unbelievable job turning his room into one of the best in the country, as will be highlighted by Joey Porter Jr. going in the first round in 2023 and Kalen King soon to follow in 2024. And then you have safeties coach Anthony Poindexter who heads into his third season with the Nittany Lions, and has the safety room trending in the same direction.

Penn State is tasked with replacing Ji’Ayir Brown and the aforementioned Porter Jr. — two big losses that in previous seasons would mean a substantial step back. But heading into 2023, the the cupboard isn’t bare whatsoever. The Nittany Lions secondary should be more “reload” as opposed to “rebuild.”


FS: Kevin Winston (SO) — Jaylen Reed (JR) — Mehki Flowers (RS FR)
SS: Keaton Ellis (SR+) — Zakee Wheatley (RS SO) — King Mack (FR)

First and foremost when looking at the safeties, I think that top four of Winston, Ellis, Reed, and Wheatley will all get a good amount of snaps. The latter three were very close this past season, with Reed having just over 420 snaps while Ellis (who started all 13 games) and Wheatley came in around 340. As we’ll get to in a second, I think Winston will join that trio and we’ll see all four play together at different times so who the “starters” are really isn’t that important. Still, this is a depth chart so we need to assign starting roles to somebody, so let’s go conservative with one and a little more aggressive with the other.

On the conservative end of things, I’d expect Keaton Ellis to keep his starting safety spot. It’s been an interesting career for Ellis, who came to Penn State as a corner and even started six games as a true freshman and sophomore in 2019 and 2020. He transitioned over to safety for the 2021 season, and had to take a backup role to Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown. He broke back through as a starter this past season though, and will now head into 2023 as the most experienced safety on the roster.

Ellis might lack the size and length that the other three safeties have — he’s the shortest at 5-foot-11 and the lightest at 189 pounds. But Ellis makes up for his lack of elite physical traits by being a smart, heady player. He’s tremendously experienced having been in the rotation since the moment he stepped on campus, and his maturity will be valuable for a team that is losing a lot of leadership at a number of positions.

At the opposite safety spot, I’m going with Kevin Winston getting the starting nod. Outside of special teams, Winston wasn’t used a ton in 2022; he finished the year with under 100 snaps. But Winston enrolled at Penn State with high expectations, and from all accounts — despite the low snap rate — his freshman season was a good one. He just had some really good players ahead of him.

So what will change that makes Winston a starter come next season? Other than the obvious of having more time in the program, he checks every box you’d want from a safety. Great size at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. Top-tier athlete. Strong against the pass and the run. Looking ahead, I just foresee him making a big jump this spring. Do not be surprised when his name comes up a ton in March and April.

Although Winston has won my heart over, that does not mean I’m no longer goo-goo gah-gah for Zakee Wheatley because, spoiler alert, I am still goo-goo gah-gah for Wheatley. It was a productive 2022 for the rising redshirt sophomore Wheatley who showcased his ability to generate turnovers, picking off two passes and forcing a fumble on the season. I thought he looked better in pass coverage than in run defense, which makes sense given his lighter, lankier frame. While he’ll never look like Kam Chancellor out there, he’ll need to pack on some more mass to become a more complete safety.

Rounding out the “starting rotation” is Jaylen Reed, who saw more snaps than Ellis despite being the backup. Thus far, Reed has been about what Penn State expected: really good as a run defender where he’s able to attack the line of scrimmage, but a bit restricted when dropping back into coverage. I still do wonder if he doesn’t eventually transition to Sam linebacker as a senior in 2024, but for 2023, he’ll continue to have a large role at safety. Just think his upside is a little more limited when compared to Winston and Wheatley — though, I might be biased, considering they are on my All-Goo-Goo Gah-Gah Team.

Rounding out the back of the rotation is Mehki Flowers, who got into two games last season before redshirting. He needed some time to physically develop before having a chance to break through so the redshirt season always seemed like part of the plan. Think you’ll see Flowers have a significant special teams role next year.

Lastly, there’s true freshman King Mack. The Florida four-star won’t be on campus until the summer, but he comes from a St. Thomas Aquinas program that is one of the best in the nation and should have Mack ready to go. We’ll talk more about Mack in the Meet The Class series, but I would basically describe him as being what we wanted Lamont Wade to be.


CB: Kalen King (JR) — *Daequan Hardy (RS SR) — Elliot Washington (FR)
CB: Johnny Dixon (RS SR) — Storm Duck (SR+) — Cam Miller (SO)

I have nothing to say about Kalen King other than I can tell you right now that one of the “Five Things I Know I Know About Penn State’s 2023 Season” is that King will have at least two pick sixes on the year.

Starting opposite King will likely be Johnny Dixon, but similar to what we talked about with safety, I expect an equal platooning at corner with Dixon and former North Carolina Tar Heel Storm Duck. Penn State doesn’t release weekly depth charts anymore, but this will be a “Dixon OR Duck” situation for the first team spot.

Perhaps it was because he was behind Porter Jr. and King, but Dixon was overlooked a bit despite having a really strong 2022 season, finishing the year with 23 tackles, 3 sacks, 4.5 TFLs, 2 INTs, 1 forced fumble, and 10 passes defended en route to earning All-B1G honorable mention. I mean, those are some bonker stats for any cornerback, let alone your CB3. He’ll rightfully head into next season with higher expectations than an honorable mention note.

Via the transfer portal comes Duck, who I talked a bit about back when he committed in late December. You can click that link to get elongated thoughts, but the gist: he’s big, he’s a solid athlete, and he’s been productive, earning second-team All-ACC last season. He needs to stay healthy after battling some injuries in 2020 and 2021, but he was one of the better corners in the portal. Big fan of his fit with King and Dixon.

Beyond the starters, Daequan Hardy should keep his stronghold on the nickelback spot, but like we’ve seen in past years, he’s mostly limited to just playing inside. That provides sophomore Cam Miller and freshman Elliot Washington with the opportunity to really carve out a role as the CB4. Miller obviously has the leg up given he played in 10 games last season, but Elliot Washington is one of the more ready-made prospects in the 2023 class. He enrolled early and is on campus, so for us sickos that care about the fourth cornerback battle, that will be a competition to watch in the spring.

Early 2023 Depth Chart: Defensive Line

Early 2023 Depth Chart: Linebacker