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Way-Too-Early Depth Chart: Penn State Defense

Penn State loses some prime time players on defense, but this unit should still be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

While the 2022 season led to frustrations offensively, it was anything but that for the defense. Manny Diaz’s group will go down as one of the better defensive units in Penn State history, which is saying something given how many elite defenses the Nittany Lions have had over the last five decades.

Unfortunately for James Franklin and Co., Diaz is back in the ACC as a head coach, this go-around coming at Duke. Franklin stuck with the “former head coach” formula for defensive coordinator, hiring former Indiana head man Tom Allen to take over for Diaz. While we’ll learn more about Allen throughout the spring and into the summer, he’s not a big philosophical change from Diaz. Surely, there will be a few tweaks — I think we could see even more 4-2-5 alignments under Allen — but the general principles of the defense shouldn’t change greatly.


DEFENSIVE TACKLE

3T: Zane Durant (JR) — Hakeem Beamon (RS SR+) — Alonzo Ford (RS SR)
1T: Dvon Ellies (RS SR+) — Coziah Izzard (RS SR) — Jordan van den Berg (RS SR)

The defensive tackle room received a big boost earlier this month when Dvon Ellies and Hakeem Beamon announced that they were returning for their sixth seasons, meaning the entire defensive tackle rotation was back for another go. While neither Ellies nor Beamon will likely transform into a first-team all-conference player in 2024, defensive tackle is a spot where having Grown Ass Men helps a lot. Both should continue their roles of being solid players who have a heavy part in the rotation.

At the top of that rotation should be Zane Durant. The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Durant looked like he was on his way to a breakout season in 2023, after wracking up 5.5 TFLs in the first seven games. The latter half of the season was much quieter for Durant though, as he failed to accumulate anymore TFLs the rest of the way. Still, Durant has big upside, and given that he’s only headed into his third season, could prove to be an All-Big Ten caliber lineman.

Rounding out the two-deep will likely be Coziah Izzard, who has been a steady option on the interior since 2021. He’s finished with at least 2 sacks and 3 TFLs in all three seasons, and should continue to be a prime option as the 4th defensive tackle.

DEFENSIVE END

DE: Amin Vanover (RS SR) — Zuriah Fisher (RS SR) — Mason Robinson (RS FR)
DE: Dani Dennis-Sutton (JR) — Jamieal Lyons (SO) — Smith Vilbert (RS SR+)

Unlike defensive tackle which returns everyone, the defensive ends will be down Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac, two all-B1G players and future early round NFL draft picks. While I still like the talent (and potential talent — we’ll get to that in a second) in the room, there’s no way around it: Chop and Isaac are big losses.

Moving into a full-time starting role will be Dani Dennis-Sutton, who made some very positive strides as a sophomore. He finished the year with 3.5 sacks and 6 TFLs, and seemingly got better as the season went along. He’ll be asked to do a lot more and carry a heavier load in 2024, but there’s no doubt Dennis-Sutton has all-conference potential.

Starting opposite Dennis-Sutton should be a legitimate competition that goes into the summer and maybe even the fall, and will likely involve three players: Amin Vanover, Zuriah Fisher, and Jamieal Lyons. Vanover is probably the best pass rusher of the group, Fisher is probably the sturdiest against the run, while Lyons offer some unique upside being that he’ll only be a true sophomore in 2024. We’ll see where things go, but regardless of who is the “starter”, all three will likely see ample playing time.

Or — does Penn State get creative and bring Abdul Carter down from linebacker and PUT HIM AT DEFENSIVE END WHERE HE BELONGS AS I HAVE BEEN SCREAMING FOR SINCE HE SIGNED!

Let me be clear: Abdul Carter is a very good linebacker. If he stays there, I’d be shocked if he didn’t earn first-team All-B1G recognition. This isn’t about what he is as a linebacker, but more about what he can be as a defensive end — which is elite. His best attribute is when he’s attacking the line of scrimmage, and given he has the size (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) for defensive end and that’s what he’ll be doing in the NFL (just like Parsons), why doesn’t Penn State make the switch now?

Perhaps it’s fan fiction on my part? But maybe not. Had Micah Parsons played the 2020 season, James Franklin was reportedly planning to use him more like his current Cowboys role:

The knocks on Parsons out of Penn State was his perceived inability to cover and the lack of pass-rush evidence. But the Cowboys staff and Quinn knew what they had, that James Franklin was planning to deploy Parsons more as an edge rusher if he hadn’t opted out in the 2020 COVID campaign and then declared for the draft.

We’ll stick with Carter staying at linebacker for this “way-too-early” projection, but I think there’s some hope to this becoming reality.

LINEBACKER

Will: Abdul Carter (JR) — Keon Wylie (RS SO) — Ta’Mere Robinson (RS FR)
Mike: Kobe King (RS JR) — Tyler Elsdon (RS SR) — Anthony Speca (FR)
Sam: Tony Rojas (SO) — Dom Deluca (RS JR) — Kaveion Keys (RS FR)

One of the main reasons why there could be a case for Carter to defensive end is because Tony Rojas might be that good. He saw limited time in 2023, but flashed during the few snaps he got, finishing the season with 22 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble. Whether it’s at the Sam or the Will, expect to see a lot more of Rojas in 2024.

At the Mike will be Kobe King, who will almost assuredly be named a captain of the team as well. King overtook Tyler Elsdon for the job last summer and didn’t disappoint, putting up 59 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks on the season. King is an old school middle linebacker at a beefy 242 pounds, but as he showed last fall, has the quickness to pursue sideline-to-sideline.

Dom DeLuca is back for what feels like his 11th season, and hopefully will continue to cause havoc. He picked off two passes and forced two fumbles last year. Keon Wylie very well could push for a starting job. Like Rojas, he’s another young linebacker who has looked really good when he’s on the field — he had 3 sacks and 5 TFLs in backup duty.

SAFETY

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

Maybe Penn State’s best positional group on defense? Think there’s an argument to be made. Kevin Winston was a breakout star for Penn State in 2023, and ended up as the fourth-highest graded safety in the country, according to PFF.

He’ll be a potential first-team all-conference candidate in 2024, and perhaps could contend for all-american honors as well — he’s that good.

Winston’s main partner will be Jaylen Reed, who returns for his fourth season at Penn State with a ton of experience. Reed has great size, instincts, and smarts, and should Tom Allen employ a “Husky” position like he did at Indiana, Reed is a prime candidate due to his versatile game.

One of the bigger winners of Allen’s hire could be Zakee Wheatley, as the Nittany Lions could go with some three safety looks more often. Ditto for King Mack, who was slowly but surely working his way into the safety rotation toward the end of the season. Mack also profiles as a Daequan Hardy replacement at the nickel, so expect to hear his name a lot more this spring and into the fall.

CORNERBACK

CB: Cam Miller (JR) — Jalen Kimber (RS SR) — Elliot Washington (SO)
CB: AJ Harris (SO) — Zion Tracy (SO) — Jon Mitchell (FR)

This is a position group that looks quite a bit different from the bowl game, huh? Penn State hit the portal hard, landing two SEC cornerbacks to bolster its depth. The leader to be CB1 though? Cam Miller, who heads into his junior season. Miller got a decent amount of run this past year, but going from CB4 to CB1 is a big step up. Still, it’d be a surprise if he isn’t at least one of the starting cornerbacks.

The other side remains a mystery and looks to be an open competition involving multiple players. Peach Bowl aside, Penn State is obviously high on Zion Tracy. Georgia transfer AJ Harris was a Top 50 prospect in the 2023 class, and impressed enough in Athens to skip a redshirt. Jalen Kimber has SEC starting experience. Elliot Washington is one of the better pure athletes on the team, and profiles as someone who could breakout with another offseason under his belt. Jon Mitchell is one of the more highly-rated corners that Penn State has landed and he’s already enrolled on campus.

Here’s the thing with cornerback at this point: Terry Smith has earned the benefit of the doubt. Cornerback, no matter the talent level or returning experience, has always proven to be good during Smith’s tenure. No real reason to think that won’t continue in 2024.