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2016 Comprehensive Offseason Primer: Defense

Penn State routinely trots out a fearsome defense; it’s as much a part of the tradition in Happy Valley as the Drum Major flip or Zombie Nation. 2016 is a “transition year” of sorts following Bob Shoop’s lateral move to become Tennessee’s next defensive coordinator, but don’t expect the next generation of Nittany Lions to crack under the pressure of losing valuable contributors to graduation and transfer.

Newly-promoted DC Brent Pry has a plan in place and the roster is abound with plenty of up-and-comers itching for their shot, something many of them will undoubtedly receive next fall given the litany of starting spots that are up for grabs. Earlier we looked at the future of Penn State’s offense, so without further adieu, let’s break down the defense.

Cornerbacks

Following the graduation of three-year starter Trevor Williams, rising junior Grant Haley is now cornerbacks coach Terry Smith’s top dog given the Atlanta native’s heavy workload during the first half of his career. The starting spot opposite Haley is up for grabs, though, and the guy for the job could very well be rising sophomore John Reid, one of the more cerebral and supremely talented youngsters to play corner for Penn State in quite some time. Haley and Reid finished tied atop the defense with a pair of interceptions apiece last fall.

Rising junior Christian Campbell flashed brilliance as a true freshman in 2014, but was unfortunately plagued by nagging injuries this past season which kept him from reaching his full potential. Campbell is a lengthy corner at 6-foot-1, and has plenty of speed to burn. If healthy, he’s a likely candidate for the nickel.

Rising redshirt sophomore Amani Oruwariye got his feet wet at the college level in 2015 on special teams and occasionally in the secondary during late-game situations, so look for his role to expand with a strong offseason. The team will be without corner Daquan Worley, who announced that he’d be leaving the program.

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Grant Haley (No. 15) hauls in a spectacular interception in traffic against Maryland.

Garrett Taylor, Penn State’s second corner from the Class of 2015, spent this past season getting back to full strength after suffering a serious knee injury during his senior year of high school. Taylor should hit the ground running this spring and summer in pursuit of significant playing time. He’s definitely got the skills to push Campbell for the nickel spot, and while many analysts figured he could be a prime candidate to transition to safety, the recent loss of Worley creates a slight depth issue at corner.

The loss of Lavert Hill wasn’t exactly unexpected given his ties to home-state schools Michigan, where his brother Delano plays safety for the Wolverines, and Michigan State, where teammate and good friend Donnie Corley just committed. Hill is also considering Clemson, Miami, and Bob Shoop’s new program, Tennessee, for his signature.

PIAA AAAA State Champion and four-star prospect Damar Hamlin of Pittsburgh Central Catholic (the alma mater of rising redshirt freshman safety John Petrishen and new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead) has been at the top of the coaching staff’s board for a while now. Hamlin recently eliminated Notre Dame from consideration, narrowing his focus to Penn State, Ohio State, and hometown Pitt. Pairing Hamlin with youngster Zech McPhearson would make a statement after the recent recruiting turbulence and revolving door of assistant coaches.

Safeties

Penn State’s safety situation draws many comparisons to its outlook at cornerback in that the Nittany Lions lose a veteran to graduation but return a promising rising junior. Jordan Lucas, a converted corner himself, missed the last three games of his collegiate career after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Northwestern. Now, Lucas will head to the Senior Bowl to prove his worth to NFL teams as a versatile defensive back, much like Adrian Amos did last year.

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Coach Franklin greets Marcus Allen during pregame.

While Franklin has yet to name his new safeties coach after former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for the same post at Tennessee, whomever inherits the position group will have a mix of seasoned veterans and young talent to work with behind returning starter Marcus Allen. The Upper Marlboro, Md., native is one of the hardest hitters on the defense and most exciting players to watch during pregame warmups, where he routinely showcases his dance repertoire.

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Koa Farmer does a lot of different things well for the Nittany Lions.

Lining up alongside Allen when Lucas went down was rising redshirt senior Malik Golden, and with Lucas off to the NFL, the starting strong safety spot is Golden’s to lose, but don’t count out versatile athlete (and the lone Californian on the roster) Koa Farmer, who spent the majority of his redshirt freshman season contributing on all four special teams units. A former wide receiver, Golden saw a fair amount of snaps over the past three seasons and will have experience on his side as he battles to keep his spot. The speedy and powerful Farmer was first asked to bulk up in order to play linebacker, but eventually the coaching staff realized his skill set was better suited in the defensive backfield.

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John Petrishen (No. 16) takes in the roaring crowd at Beaver Stadium.

Spring practice should go a long way in determining who has the best chance to climb the pecking order and earn valuable playing time. Backup free safety Troy Apke, a speedy rising junior from Mt. Lebanon, Pa., saw his role increase significantly in 2015. A trio of freshmen spent their first season on campus learning the ropes on the scout team and putting in extra work with strength and performance enhancement director Dwight Galt. Ayron Monroe came close to seeing the field this past season, but was able to preserve his redshirt given Golden’s performance. Jarvis Miller is a freakish athlete who has also competed internationally as a black belt in karate. John Petrishen was a do-it-all sensation for Pittsburgh Central Catholic. Each will have ample opportunity to carve their name into the rotation this offseason.

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Troy Apke (No. 28) runs out of the tunnel before the Maryland game.

Penn State currently holds a commitment from legacy Andrew Pryts, whose father Ed played linebacker for Joe Paterno from 1978-81. Pryts, a four-star prospect the Nittany Lions recruited as a safety, broke records on both sides of the ball for Hickory High School in Hermitage, Pa. 6-foot-5 three-star athlete Aaron Mathews recently committed after Penn State extended a late offer. The coaching staff sees Mathews as a defensive prospect with the opportunity to grow into either a safety or linebacker.

Things are also trending up in Penn State’s quest to land another safety or two before National Signing Day, as Lackawanna Community College standout Kyzir White, a West Virginia pledge since mid-June, will officially visit State College on Jan. 22. Louisville remains in contention as well and will receive an OV this coming weekend. White is transferring to FBS from the same school as Nittany Lion left tackle Paris Palmer. Three-star Semper Fidelis All-American Khaleke Hudson is a special athlete, showing potential at both safety and running back. The McKeesport, Pa., native will also be on campus next weekend. Michigan, UCLA, and hometown Pitt round out his final four.

Linebackers

The Nittany Lions have endured a whirlwind week of coaching changes and player departures, but perhaps no position group was more affected than Brent Pry’s linebackers. Pry recently saw “co” removed from his bio, as the nearby Altoona, Pa., native was promoted to full-time defensive coordinator following Bob Shoop’s move to Tennessee.

Brent Pry
Penn State’s defense is in capable hands of Brent Pry moving forward.

However, a pair of Tuesday transfers altered the landscape of Penn State’s linebacker room going forward. Gary Wooten, Jr. announced intentions to grad transfer, making him eligible to play immediately at his next destination, which has yet to be confirmed. Wooten was a special teams stalwart but rarely saw the field when the game was on the line. The far more shocking news this week was certainly that of Troy Reeder leaving the program to play right away at FCS Delaware.

Reeder’s landing spot makes all the sense in the world given it’s his home-state program, his father played for the Blue Hens, and his younger brother, Colby, also a linebacker, recently joined Delaware’s Class of 2016. Yet, Reeder finished fourth on the defense in 2015 with 67 tackles after starting each game of the season but the bookends (Temple and Georgia), and had ample opportunity to be the next great Linebacker U product with three years of eligibility remaining.

Although one less contender for a starting spot on the outside will hurt Pry’s depth next fall, the Nittany Lions still return a veteran-heavy group that could be one of the best in the Big Ten in 2016. All indications point toward Nyeem Wartman-White being back for his final season after suffering his second major knee injury in the season opener against Temple. Wartman-White’s replacement at middle linebacker — essentially quarterback of the defense — was Jason Cabinda, and boy did the Flemington, N.J., native impress. Cabinda, now a true junior, recorded a team-high 100 tackles on the dot while striking fear into opposing offenses with his hard-hitting mentality.

Jason Cabinda Football Illinois 2015
Jason Cabinda drags down an Illini running back.

It will be extremely interesting to see whether Cabinda remains at the Mike or slides back out to the weak side, where he started the first game of 2015. Wartman-White spent his entire career outside before necessity called for a switch after the graduation of Mike Hull, so going back to the Will spot would be familiar for the Philly native. Von Walker, who received a scholarship prior to this past season and was named a team captain, returns for his final year and will certainly provide much-needed leadership, while adding depth.

Fellow senior Brandon Bell has played meaningful snaps since his true freshman campaign, improving his stats each year as a starter. Bell logged 47 tackles this past season despite being hampered by a few nagging injuries. It’s a pretty safe bet that Bell will lock down the starting Sam ‘backer position, giving the Nittany Lions another seasoned vet to help bring the young guns along.

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Brandon Bell (No. 11) reacts after a hit against Illinois.

Two of those youngsters — Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen — have a full season under their belts after being called upon against Temple. Cooper has the makings of a prototypical Penn State middle linebacker at 6-foot-1, 226 pounds with room to grow, but the Doylestown, Pa., product ended up making his first career start on the outside in the TaxSlayer Bowl when Reeder was sidelined with an injury. Bowen showcased supreme speed on special teams, while slowly working his way into Pry’s rotation in late-game situations. Plus, Bowen’s packed on nearly 30 pounds of muscle since arriving last summer, so look for the Barnegat, N.J., standout to see more and more snaps this offseason.

Penn State currently holds a pair of 2016 linebacker commitments from four-star Cameron Brown and three-star Shaka Toney, each of whom displayed gaudy pass-rushing ability in high school at defensive end, but the Nittany Lions love the duo’s potential in the middle level of the defense instead. The coaching staff is far from being done recruiting linebackers, though, as four-star U.S. Army All-American Brendan Ferns has narrowed his focus to Penn State and West Virginia, where his brother, Michael, plays fullback for the Mountaineers. Ferns is a special athlete who has all the potential in the world at middle linebacker.

Defensive Tackles

Sean Spencer has his work cut of for him this offseason as one of the most celebrated trios of defensive linemen in Penn State history has NFL aspirations. Consensus All-American and Lombardi Award winner (among many other honors) Carl Nassib graduated, as did standout defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. Austin Johnson turned in a stellar 2015, proving himself as a premiere prospect in the middle thanks to career-high numbers across the board. After a long and undeniably tiresome process, Johnson declared for the NFL Draft after the Nittany Lions’ 24-17 loss to Georgia in Jacksonville.

Austin Johnson celebrates after he drives the Hoosiers back ten yards with a big sack.
Austin Johnson (No. 99) celebrates after a big sack against Indiana on Homecoming.

Needless to say, the upcoming spring and summer sessions will be huge in terms of developing the next generation of defensive tackles at Penn State. No small task given the talent that it will need to replace on the interior, but there’s some reason for excitement. Rising redshirt junior Parker Cothren has seen a steady dose of playing time over the past two seasons and could be primed to nab one of the two starting spots up front. Behind him, expect quite the competition this offseason, with a handful of viable suitors stating their case for the job.

Redshirt sophomore-to-be Antoine White performed admirably in the first limited action of his career. Franklin discussed the possibility of burning Robert Windsor’s redshirt in 2015, but the hulking Fond Du Lac, Wisc., native was able to learn the ropes behind the scenes instead. Big things could be in store in the near future for Windsor. A pair of his classmates, who also redshirted last year, have fans and analysts alike excited as well. Ryan Buchholz and Kam Carter are freakish athletes with plenty of size and speed who shifted inside from defensive end. Both will likely be asked to step up this coming season given the depleted depth situation at tackle.

Anthony Zettel Football Taxslayer Bowl Georgia 2016
Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel embrace after their last game in the blue and white.

Penn State lost a pair of defensive tackle commits in four-star Karamo Dioubate and three-star Christian Colón, but the Nittany Lions still own pledges from four-star Under Armour All-American Ellison Jordan and three-star New Jersey state champion Michael Dwumfour. The coaching staff recently made a late offer to three-star Chicago prospect Amir Watts.

Defensive Ends

The graduation of Nassib, who authored one of the most inspiring stories of perseverance in college football this past fall, certainly hurts. How could it not, given his school-record 15.5 sacks? But, the Nittany Lions return rising redshirt junior Garrett Sickels, who turned in an impressive season despite being rightfully overshadowed by his linemates at times. As the lone returning starter on the defensive line, Sickels has a big opportunity to take this unit under his wing and show the rest of the Big Ten what he’s made of.

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Garrett Sickels pumps up the crowd during an Illinois drive.

Redshirt sophomore-to-be Torrence Brown — who hails from Tuscaloosa, Ala., home of the 2016 College Football Playoff National Champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide — showcased solid pass-rushing skills throughout his debut campaign. The highlight of Brown’s first season was undoubtedly his monster hit on Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock during the 28-16 Senior Day loss to the Wolverines.

Rising redshirt senior Evan Schwan has seen his fair share of playing time over the past few years and should provide valuable depth or even push for a starting role. Redshirt junior-to-be Curtis Cothran has yet to make a major impact at Penn State, but has steadily improved each season and 2016 could be his breakout year. Rising redshirt freshmen Shareef Miller and Kevin Givens boast ridiculous strength off the edge, spending their first season on campus readying their frames for Power Five football. Miller is your protypical lengthy end, checking in at 6-foot-5, while Givens is an absolute ball of muscle — albeit a little undersized at 6-foot-1 —  but the talented high school shot-putter who hails from the same hometown as Pry (Altoona) has plenty of motor.

Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel Football Northwestern 2015
Few former walk-ons, if any, have accomplished as much as Carl Nassib did in 2015.

Penn State has a special class of defensive ends committed to play their college ball in State College. Four-star USA Today All-USA second team selection Shane Simmons put on a show at the Under Armour All-America Game, going toe-to-toe against many of the nation’s best high school seniors in Orlando and often coming out on top. Fellow four-star Daniel Joseph surprised many recruiting experts when he committed to the Nittany Lions over home-state schools Michigan and Michigan State back in late June, but Joseph has the makings of a force to be reckoned with at end.

A new chapter of the Penn State defense is ready to be written this coming season and it all starts with a strong batch of spring practices. While some new faces will inhabit a few key positions, the pieces are in place for an exciting offseason that will go a long way in shedding light on the stars of the future. 

About the Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan’s a senior journalism major who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. When he’s not covering Penn State sports, you can usually find him golfing or teaching snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. Feel free to email him at [email protected]

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