We continue our ‘3 Reasons’ series today with perhaps the easiest assignment I’ve had during my BSD tenure - find three reasons the be optimistic about the Penn State Defense in 2023. This could have been a much longer list, but per tradition, we’ll stick with the three main reasons for optimistim when the Nittany Lions defense takes the field in 2023.
SUPERSTARS AT EACH LEVEL
Penn State’s defense has some serious star power returning to the lineup in 2023. I’ll even go as far as saying that they could have the best player in the nation at defensive end (Chop Robinson), linebacker (Abdul Carter) and cornerback (Kalen King) by the time the season comes to an end.
Robinson is a special kind of tenacious that sees him getting to the quarterback nearly every time they drop back to pass. If he doesn’t knock the quarterback to the ground, he’s at least making sure they get the ball out too quick and cause many poor decisions. He also will require so much attention to slow down that he will make the rest of the defensive line much more dangerous.
Carter showed more playmaking ability than any other true freshman I’ve witnessed at Penn State - not LaVar Arrington or Brandon Short, not Paul Posluszny, Dan Conner or Sean Lee, not NaVarro Bowman, and not even Micah Parsons, who led the team in tackles as a true freshman and may currently be the best overall defensive player in the NFL. It wasn’t just his playmaming ability - Carter is an all-around sound linebacker with little weakness in his game. And he’ll only grow as a player from where he left off in the Rose Bowl.
Many on the staff, myself included, felt King bypassed Joey Porter Jr. by the end of the season. That’s some major praise considering Porter was the 32nd overall pick in the NFL Draft and one of the very best cornerbacks ever to wear the blue and white. King is everything you could want in a cornerback — someone who will make it nearly impossible to throw his way when he’s in coverage, and if the quarterback gets any ideas, he can easily make them pay.
There are many others on the defensive side of the ball who will be making a name for themselves this year, but these three could all be First Team All-Americans come December.
THE DEFENSIVE END ROOM
While Chop Robinson will be a contender for All-American status, there’s plenty of other proven talent ready to wreak havoc this fall.
Adissa Isaac will be back on the opposite side of Robinson as the veteran leader of the room. The fifth-year senior demonstrated the explosiveness after returning from an injury to lead the team with 11 TFLs. Dani Dennis-Sutton was difficult to contain when he saw the field as a reserve/role player, and will play a MUCH larger role this season as teammates and coaches have raved about the offseason progress of the five-star prospect. Smith Vilbert returns to a full-time role after making a strong impression as a reserve in 2021 - including a school record-tying three-sack performance in his only start. Amin Vanover made the most of his opportunities a season ago, and came on especially strong in November. There’s also been buzz surrounding Zuriah Fisher, who had to take a redshirt season to recover from an injury and was able to make two apperances towards the end of the year. He has the size and explosiveness to be a difference-maker coming off the edge as well.
If opponents game-plan around slowing down Robinson or anyone in particular, there are several others who will use that advantage to make play after play. Plus, the deep rotation will only help this unit grow stronger as each game continues and the offensive line become fatigued. Let’s just say there will be some long nights ahead for opposing offensive staffs.
I’m not sure if there could have been a more perfect fit than Manny Diaz taking the reins of the defense following the departure of Brent Pry to become Virginia Tech’s head coach ahead of the 2022 season. Diaz’s philosophy is to bring pressure from everywhere to constantly keep an offense on its toes regardless of the down and distance. Penn State had the disciplined athletes to make Diaz’s high-risk, high-reward execution work swimmingly, regularly creating momentum-shifting plays while rarely getting caught flat-footed.
It’s a complex system that can create mass confusion for the offense, but also takes time to fully get everyone on the same page and implement. It’s a big reason for such a sharp improvement in the defense as the season progressed in 2022. Year two will see players much more comfortable in Diaz’s system from the start, with plenty of experience and emerging talent.