Breaking Down Brent Pry’s Defense Heading Into Football Season
Penn State’s defensive guru the past two seasons, Bob Shoop, is down in Knoxville trying to mastermind the final stages of Tennessee’s return to relevance. This season, the Nittany Lions in the trusted hands of Brent Pry. With Kent State coming to town this Saturday for the team’s 3:30 season opener, let’s take a look at the latest developments on defense.
James Franklin hasn’t given a Nittany Lion freshman defender the green light just yet, instead listing running back Miles Sanders, offensive lineman Connor McGovern, and punter Blake Gillikin as game-ready following last Wednesday’s practice. Penn State could potentially see some new arrivals make a splash on defense this fall.
Prime candidates for said playing time include blue-chip defensive end Shane Simmons or his fellow Wild Dog Daniel Joseph, both of whom have all the physical tools necessary to mix it up in the Big Ten but could potentially use some time to develop before hitting the field. Imposing 6-foot-5 outside linebacker Cameron Brown may have his name called at some point this season if depth concerns become even more pressing at “Linebacker U” and freak athlete Zech McPhearson could factor in at cornerback, but in both cases, the staff certainly wouldn’t mind letting them redshirt. That option seems in order for defensive linemen Ellison Jordan, Shaka Toney, and Antonio Shelton, as well as stretch corner T.J. Johnson.
Departures: Austin Johnson (Tennessee Titans), Carl Nassib (Cleveland Browns), Anthony Zettel (Detroit Lions), and Tarow Barney (New York Jets)
Returners: Garrett Sickels, Evan Schwan, Parker Cothren, Torrence Brown, Antoine White, and Curtis Cothran
Newcomers: Kevin Givens, Ryan Buchholz, Robert Windsor, Shareef Miller, Tyrell Chavis (JuCo), Brenon Thrift (JuCo), and walk-ons Ryan Monk and Colin Castagna
Replacing four Nittany Lions will undoubtedly be a tall task for defensive line coach Sean Spencer, but Coach Chaos has proven the merits of rotating his guys heavily in order to keep them fresh and Penn State has as deep of a defensive line group as ever since Franklin took over. Garrett Sickels is by far the most experienced of the bunch and will be relied upon as the top dog. Graduate senior Evan Schwan put in plenty of work in the offseason and appears to have beaten out Torrence Brown for the starting defensive-end job opposite Sickels.
It’s anyone’s guess who starts alongside Parker Cothren at defensive tackle, but the candidates include Antoine White and redshirt freshman Kevin Givens from nearby Altoona, Pa., who turned heads in the Blue-White Game and is already providing big returns on investment as a late Pitt flip. A sizeable group in Curtis Cothran, Robert Windsor, Tyrell Chavis, Brenon Thrift, and Ryan Monk will battle it out for backup interior reps, while Buchholz, Miller, and Castagna should push the top three ends for playing time, in their own right.
Departures: Troy Reeder (transfer) and Gary Wooten, Jr.
Returners: Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda, Jake Cooper, Manny Bowen, and Von Walker
Newcomers: Johnathan Thomas (running back) and walk-on Jan Johnson
Though Penn State is razor thin in terms of depth at linebacker this season, with no more than a two-deep of proven experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more versatile and prolific starting trio in the Big Ten than Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell, and Jason Cabinda, who own a combined 57 starts between them.
The surprising loss of Reeder to Delaware, coupled with Wooten’s graduation, leaves the Nittany Lions in a delicate situation at the team’s most iconic position. But have no fear, Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen are here. The true-sophomore duo burst onto the scene following Wartman-White’s season-ending injury against Temple and learned invaluable lessons from their significant game action. Cooper and Bowen will form a nice combo with senior two-time captain Von Walker.
Departures: Jordan Lucas (Miami Dolphins) and Trevor Williams (San Diego Chargers)
Returners: Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Malik Golden, John Reid, Troy Apke, Christian Campbell, Amani Oruwariye, Koa Farmer, and Jordan Smith
Newcomers: Garrett Taylor, Nick Scott (running back), Ayron Monroe, Jarvis Miller, and John Petrishen
The loss of veterans Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams to the NFL creates opportunity for a nice mix of upperclassmen and young talent to make an impact in the defensive backfield this season. Graduate senior Malik Golden will likely flank junior Marcus Allen at safety, while cornerbacks coach Terry Smith must feel really good about his starters in Grant Haley and John Reid.
It’ll be interesting to see how the two-deep shakes out at safety with junior Troy Apke, redshirt sophomore Koa Farmer, redshirt freshman Ayron Monroe, and former running back Nick Scott all jokeying for reps in a crowded-yet-inexperienced position group. All four will likely see the field in some capacity this fall, whether that be on defense or, at least initially, on special teams. Junior Christian Campbell is your no-doubt third corner and should see plenty of time when the Nittany Lions go with five defensive backs and a pair of linebackers against spread offenses.
Redshirt fresman Garrett Taylor could be in line for a breakout season, as the Richmond, Va., native arrived at Penn State as one of the most coveted high school corners in the nation. With a knee injury in the rearview mirror, Taylor will take on Amani Oruwariye for the lion’s share of reps as the defense’s fourth option on the outside.
Fielding a dominant defense has long been the standard at Penn State and although 2016 presents some challenges as far as building reliable depth along the defensive line and staying healthy at linebacker, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Nittany Lions’ chances against a tough schedule.