For all the gripes about Penn State’s offense, the one constant under head coach James Franklin has been a defense that can be counted on at times to win football games.
That all took place under the direction of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, but he is off to the same position at Tennessee and that means a bump up the coaching ranks for long-time Franklin assistant Brent Pry.
What kind of changes will Pry bring to the defense and are there players who have gotten a fresh start with a new leader at the top of the defensive coaching tree? Let’s take a look at the 2016 Penn State Nittany Lions defense.
Penn State’s strong suit under Franklin has come from an aggressive front seven, but a lot of that success came as a result of some really good pieces along the defensive line. Most of those pieces from the past few years are graduated or off to the NFL.
Defensive end could be a dynamic pairing with likely starters Garrett Sickles and Evan Schwann. As a sophomore, Sickles recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks in his first season as a starter. Meanwhile, Schwann contributed 21 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss as a backup on the roster.
One name to keep an eye out for a potential upset in the starting rotation is sophomore defensive end Torrence Brown. He pushed Schwann hard in the spring and some believe he could be the future at defensive end for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State’s biggest issue up front is what is going to happen at defensive tackle now that Anthony Zettle and Austin Johnson are gone. Those two combined for 26.0 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season alone.
Getting the first crack at filling those shoes will likely be sophomore Antoine White and junior Parker Cothren. However, those two combined for just 1.5 sacks and 2.0 tackles for loss last season. What is going to be most intriguing to watch incoming JUCO transfers Brenon Thrift and Tyrell Chavis. Game experience is lacking from this group overall, and that could be a real help to the depth at defensive tackle.
Don’t be surprised to hear names like Robert Windsor and incoming 4-star freshman Ellison Jordan to all be in the mix at DT.
It appears this group is solid as a starting unit together, but any amount of injury trouble and it could be a whole different story for PSU up front in 2016.
A lot of teams would have killed to have the issues that Penn State had coming out of last season at linebacker. It appeared there would be four players capable of starting, but that turned on its head as middle linebacker Troy Reeder announced an offseason transfer to Delaware.
Perhaps the biggest question mark heading in to fall camp is just how healthy and how close to 100 percent ready is senior middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White. If he is back to his old self, his starting spot is surely secure and this linebacker group is dangerous. If not, the loss of Reeder will be a big cloud hanging over this position.
Luckily, the Nittany Lions can also count on two outstanding outside linebackers in senior Brandon Bell and the leading returning tackler from last season, junior Jason Cabinda. He tallied an even 100 tackles to go with 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception in his first year as a true starter.
Sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen provide intriguing depth after seeing playing time as freshmen last season as well. Overall, this may be the position with the least concern given the quality of recruiting that has happened since Franklin’s arrival on campus.
This group appears to be dominated by the safeties, as junior Marcus Allen was second on the team with 81 tackles in his sophomore season last year and Malik Golden flashed during times as well. However, the loss of Jordan Lucas at cornerback is likely to be felt in a big way in 2016.
It will be up to junior Grant Haley to pick up the slack, after putting up 42 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and seven pass break ups as the starter opposite Lucas. The real name to watch in the secondary is sophomore cornerback John Reid, who made an immediate impact as a freshman last season and saw plenty of playing time.
Reid eventually racked up 29 tackles, two interceptions, three passes defensed, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble as just a nickel and dime player in the secondary last year. Impressive for a freshman and numbers that will put a spotlight on him going forward.
Depth is also a concern here beyond the starters, but look for safety Troy Akpe and cornerback Garrett Taylor to be two names worth noting before the season starts.
Our Projected Starters:
DE: Evan Schwann, Sr.
DT: Parker Cothern, Jr.
DT: Antoine White, So.
DE: Garrett Sickles, Jr.
OLB: Jason Cabinda, Jr.
MLB: Nyeem Wartman-White, Sr.
OLB: Brandon Bell, Sr.
CB: Grant Haley, Jr.
FS: Marcus Allen, Jr.
SS: Malik Golden, Sr.
CB: John Reid, So.
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