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Penn State Football Preview: Defense Blends Old And New In Search Of Continued Success

The Nittany Lions’ success this season relies on revamping a defense that returns only four players with more than 10 career starts under their belts.

Penn State’s 2017 defense was strong, ranking among the top 25 teams in the nation in five major categories: fumble recoveries (tied for No. 4), sacks (tied for No. 7), scoring defense (No. 7), total yards allowed (No. 17), and rush defense (No. 18).

The team did struggle against the pass in its two losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, as pass defense was the weakest link of Brent Pry’s defense last season. The Nittany Lions ranked No. 47 in the country in passing defense, while finishing No. 67 in interceptions.

With the release of James Franklin’s depth chart on Tuesday in mind, here’s Penn State’s defense is likely to shake out this year.

Returning Starters

Defensive tackle Kevin Givens, defensive end Shareef Miller, linebacker Koa Farmer, and cornerback John Reid will provide veteran experience for a unit that lost three to the NFL and both Torrence Brown and Ryan Buchholz to medical retirements.

Additionally, Amani Oruwariye is poised to start at corner alongside John Reid. No. 21 hauled in four interceptions for the Nittany Lions last year as a slot corner, but he should be even more involved in pass defense this season. Oruwariye’s 6’1″ frame and Reid’s speed as a former punt returner provide a strong tandem at the cornerback position for the Nittany Lions.

Penn State will feature at least two new starting linebackers after losing Jason Cabinda to graduation and the saga of Manny Bowen’s team status over the offseason. Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran will turn the defensive tackle spot over to Givens to lead.

Arguably the best position group on the team outside of quarterback, the defensive line brings back a stacked two deep squad even after losing Buchholz and Brown. Third team All-Big Ten defensive end Shareef Miller is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he tallied 37 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 12 starts. Shane Simmons will likely start alongside Miller as the season progresses, but wasn’t listed on the season’s first depth chart due to injury.

Koa Farmer is the only linebacker with starting experience at the position; he’s coming off a 2017 season that saw him tally 47 tackles — including 5.5 for a loss — in 13 games. Known for his “Landshark” celebration after big plays, Farmer provides top-notch speed for the front seven as a former safety and kick returner.

Fresh Faces

Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos will likely battle for reps throughout the season, though Gross-Matos won the starting job for week one against Appalachian State.

Givens will serve as the anchor to the front seven after recording 8.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries in his first two years as a starter. The redshirt junior can play inside and out, much like his listed partner at defensive tackle, Robert Windsor.

The versatility and athleticism of these two tackles should allow Penn State’s ferocious pass rush from 2017 to continue into this season. The backups at tackle provide virtually zero experience, but a lot of upside with redshirt sophomores Antonio Shelton and Ellison Jordan competing with redshirt freshman Fred Hansard for playing time.

“Linebacker U” is finally reaping the benefits of having to play linebacker roulette during the injury-ravaged 2016 campaign. Fresh faces that saw a bit of playing time that year are now the players who will see the field first against Appalachian State this weekend — Cam Brown will flank middle linebacker Jan Johnson for Penn State along with the aforementioned Farmer.

This should be the year that the 6’5″ Brown changes from the gangly freshman who blocks kicks to lengthy tackler who eats ball carriers alive. Johnson has only appeared in six career games, but coaches are trusting the redshirt junior over Ellis Brooks, Micah Parsons, Jarvis Miller, and Jesse Luketa.

Reserve corner Tariq Castro-Fields also saw some playing time last season, as did Zech McPhearson, who is currently listed No. 5 on the cornerback depth chart behind Castro-Fields and Donovan Johnson.

While the corners have a good amount of experience, the safety positions are potentially the biggest questions for the team to answer this season. Converted cornerbacks Garrett Taylor and Lamont Wade went back and forth for one of starting roles before the redshirt junior Taylor emerged. Taylor has 14 tackles as a special teams-focused player the last two seasons, but tallied an interception and a fumble recovery last season.

Fan favorite and team captain Nick Scott finally steps into a starting role after being beaten out last season by Troy Apke. Redshirt junior Ayron Monroe, who has also featured often on special teams, holds the backup role.

Notable Freshmen

Micah Parsons, the highly-touted five-star commit from Harrisburg, should factor into the rotation in some way. The true freshman is already drawing more attention since arriving in Happy Valley, selecting the famous No. 11 that was worn by one of Penn State’s greatest linebackers – Lavar Arrington. Of all the freshmen on this year’s team, No. 11 should see the most playing time this season.

Jesse Luketa is also listed on the Nittany Lions’ first three-deep depth chart as the third-choice middle linebacker, as the four-star recruit from Ottawa has impressed throughout camp. He’s still raw, but could make an impact similar to a few other former Canadian Nittany Lions, like John Urschel and Pete Giftopoulous.

Nick Tarburton also made the first depth chart of the season as a reserve defensive end. He made waves throughout spring ball and training camp due to his conversion from linebacker to the defensive line, and his work paid off. PJ Mustipher is another defensive lineman who will feature in games this season, according to head coach James Franklin.

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About the Author

Mitch Stewart

Mitch is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism from Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to his role with Onward State, Mitch talks about all the #sprots on Penn State's CommRadio. To contact Mitch, feel free to send him an e-mail at [email protected], and if you really don't value your social media accounts, follow him as he yells on Twitter about Penn State basketball @mitchystew.

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