There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Penn State defense as we inch closer to the 2018 season, but I’m not much of a cheerleader. Here are the three biggest reasons why the Nittany Lions could struggle when the opponent has the ball this autumn.
1. Lost Talent in the Secondary
The departures of Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Grant Haley, and Christian Campbell would be a bigger deal if there weren’t so many experienced players waiting to take their places. Safeties Nick Scott and Ayron Monroe have already seen the field a bunch, while the starting cornerback roles appear to be locked down by Amani Oruwariye and John Reid. However, Reid is coming off a serious knee injury and there won’t be as much depth behind the starters as there was last year.
The biggest concern with this group, though, is that it didn’t play very well against top passing attacks in 2017. J.T. Barrett and Brian Lewerke combined for 728 passing yards, six touchdowns, and just one interception in Penn State’s only two losses. Tanner Lee, albeit in a losing effort, had a day of his own with 399 yards and three scores when the Lions played Nebraska. Barrett and Lee have both moved on, but there’s still plenty of new and returning quarterback talent that won’t be shy about throwing on Penn State if the secondary doesn’t show improvement.
2. Where Have All the Tackles Gone?
Penn State’s top five leading tacklers from 2017 are no longer on the team, leaving linebacker Koa Farmer as the top returning tackler with 48 stops. That means there will be a lot of new faces getting in the way of opposing tailbacks this September. Farmer and junior Cam Brown will be responsible for leading a linebacker group that is lacking in depth and experience compared to last year’s squad.
Stopping the pass is an issue that carries over from 2017, but run defense is something that could also give the Lions trouble early in the season as some inexperienced players get their feet wet. The schedule starts out with four very winnable games, so hopefully all the kinks will be worked out by the time J.K. Dobbins and Ohio State come to town on September 29.
3. The Pass Rush Must Get Better
One area where Penn State is returning a lot of talent is at defense end. However, if Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney only repeat what they did last season, it will be a big disappointment. The two combined for only nine sacks and the front seven as a whole allowed opposing quarterbacks to get too comfortable behind the line of scrimmage. If the pass rush does improve, it will be a big help for the new-look secondary. If not, we could see the Lions struggle on offense to keep pace with some of their more talented opponents.