On Tuesday, Jared outlined how this has the potential to be the best defense of the James Franklin era and one of the top units in program history. I drew the short straw and have to point out the concerns that exist for Manny Diaz’s collection of talented, hungry, and experienced players.
STOPPING THE RUN
Let’s not hide from it, Penn State was embarrassed last season in Ann Arbor. Following the game, James Franklin seemed to lament the size of his defensive linemen - a statement he backed down from in later interviews - as he reflected on Michigan chewing up tons or yardage on the ground and time on the clock.
The blueprint to beat Penn State seemed obvious - run at them. There’s no doubt that Penn State responded by playing well against the run, including bouncing back a week later to throttle Minnesota. But still, think back to the Rose Bowl where before an ill-timed trick play call and a subsequent injury to its starting quarterback, Utah was playing much the same style as UM and the game was 14-14 midway through the third quarter.
With Iowa and Illinois (we can’t forget the offensive strategy the last time Penn State faced them) returning and appearing early on the September schedule, Penn State is likely to more often face the kind of game plan that gashed them in their most lopsided loss last season. Can they stop it?
STRONG ENOUGH UP THE MIDDLE?
This directly coincides with the first point. The adage is in baseball that you need to be strong up the middle. Well, looking at the most heralded talent that will take the field for the Lions in 2023, much of that comes on the edges (defensive end, corner, outside linebacker).
Someone or some players will have to step up on the interior defensive line to replace mainstay PJ Mustipher. Meanwhile, Penn State loses a standout NFL-drafted safety for the second straight year. And, of course, middle linebacker - from the opener in West Lafayette to a crucial missed tackle in the Rose Bowl - was one of the weak spots last year on the defense. Will it be Kobe King or Tyler Elsdon getting the majority of reps at the Mike? Or someone else?
As we’ll continue to address throughout the buildup to the season, this is likely one of the deepest Penn State defensive rosters of all time. Franklin has always let his coordinators go deep into the depth charts in order to keep guys fresh and in his first year Manny Diaz seemed happy to run with this idea. Oftentimes, I found myself reaching for a program in the first month of the season.
So what’s the reason for concern? There’s a level of comfort that comes with knowing who is next to you and how they’ll react between the whistles. With so much substituting and with some players not having the same level of experience, communication and continuity will be something worth keeping an eye on as the year begins.