Projecting Penn State Football’s 2019 Starting Lineup: Defensive Front Seven
Penn State football is nearly back, and with that, the team’s training camp is well underway in Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions’ roster is definitely on the younger side — particularly on offense. The most experienced players at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions are all redshirt sophomores, and that naturally brings plenty of question marks entering the 2019 season. One area with very few question marks, however, is the defensive front seven.
James Franklin’s group of linebackers and defensive linemen ranks among the best in the Big Ten and is also perhaps one of the best in the nation. If you’re looking for star power on this team, look no further than junior end Yetur-Gross Matos and sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons.
That said, there’s a lot more to the front seven than those two players. Here are our projections of who will fill out the starting roles at the defensive end, tackle, and linebacker positions this season.
Starters: Robert Windsor, Antonio Shelton
Reserves: Fred Hansard, PJ Mustipher, Judge Culpepper, and Damion Barber
Penn State’s group of defensive tackles is deep this season. Grad student Robert Windsor is back in the fold this year. He’ll likely assume starting duties at this position again after posting 39 tackles and 7.5 sacks last season. He’s undoubtedly the veteran leader of the defensive tackles, but his fellow starter — Kevin Givens — surprisingly declared for the NFL Draft and left the Nittany Lions after last season.
Antonio Shelton played in all 13 of Penn State’s games last season and posted 14 tackles along with a sack in a backup role. Based on experience, he’s the most likely player to take on Givens’ starting role, but don’t be surprised if a guy like Fred Hansard or PJ Mustipher winds up starting.
Hansard suffered a season-ending injury during the Nittany Lions’ defeat to Michigan State midway through 2018. He’s back and healthy now, and he’s definitely right in the thick of this year’s competition for snaps on the defensive line. The redshirt sophomore made two tackles in six appearances before his injury, and his injury left a big hole in Penn State’s depth chart.
PJ Mustipher stepped up into a backup role and performed well. The talented then-freshman appeared in 12 games, made 14 tackles, and posted a tackle-for-loss. He also forced a fumble that was recovered by Garrett Taylor in Penn State’s 33-28 victory over Indiana last season. The former four-star recruit is one of the most athletic players on Penn State’s defensive line, and he has a chance to blossom into a star if he can find his way into the starting lineup.
Ellison Jordan’s impending departure from the program hurt the group’s depth a little bit, but Damion Barber and Judge Culpepper are both poised to be viable reserve options when the likes of Windsor, Shelton, Hansard, and Mustipher need a break.
Starters: Yetur-Gross Matos, Shaka Toney
Reserves: Shane Simmons, Jayson Oweh, Daniel Joseph, and Adisa Isaac
If Sean Spencer has depth to work with at defensive tackle, he has an embarrassment of riches at the end position.
Yetur Gross-Matos is one of the best defensive ends in the nation right now. He exploded into a star with a team-leading 20 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks, and some think he’s poised to be a top 10 selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether he’s stopping the run or rushing the passer, Gross-Matos is a dynamic talent capable of taking on the best offensive linemen in the country.
With his level of talent comes a naturally high level of expectations from fans and coaches. Gross-Matos was suspended from the team throughout the summer for an undisclosed violation of team rules, but head coach James Franklin had plenty of praise for his star end.
“I think he’s going to have a really big year for us,” Franklin said at the team’s media day last week. “As the year went on last year, really started to kind of separate himself I think into one of the more elite defensive ends in college football. We’re very pleased with him, his development, and his appreciation for being at Penn State and his appreciation for being a part of our football program.”
On the other side of the line, Penn State has three players capable of filling the starting role left vacant by Shareef Miller’s departure to the NFL. Shane Simmons and Jayson Oweh are both huge talents, but I think the starting role will be occupied by Shaka Toney to start the 2019 season.
Toney’s 2018 stats — 23 tackles, 7.5 stops for a loss of yardage, and five sacks in 13 games played — may not jump off the page. However, he’s entered training camp with a chip on his shoulder after mostly featuring as a backup last season.
During spring practice, Franklin referred to some of his players — including Tariq Castro-Fields and Micah Parsons — as “returning starters” despite their few appearances in the starting lineup. With 13 appearances off the bench under his belt, Toney being included in the “returning starter” conversation might make sense, but he doesn’t think so.
“I haven’t started a game yet,” Toney said. “I’m just trying to come out here and work hard to do whatever I can to help this team. I haven’t arrived or done anything yet — my past is my past, and I’m only looking forward.”
Shane Simmons — a former five-star recruit — is firmly in the starting mix after injuries decimated his redshirt sophomore season. Simmons had to wait until week 7 to make his season debut, and he didn’t make a huge impact when he was in the lineup.
He’s clearly talented enough to push for the starting job alongside Gross-Matos, but his health will determine how much success he has. Franklin reported that Simmons is “as healthy as he’s been since we recruited him” last Saturday, and the thought of a player like him coming off the bench for Penn State is a terrifying thought for opposing offenses.
The last of Penn State’s four starting-caliber ends is Jayson Oweh. The redshirt freshman made four tackles in as many appearances last year, but his athleticism has pushed him near the top of Penn State’s depth chart. He’s one of the fastest players on the entire team — a mind-blowing fact considering his position — and his athleticism is close to that of Micah freakin’ Parsons.
Oweh didn’t even start playing football until it was fairly late in his high school career, which makes his rise even more impressive. Because of that, however, his fundamentals are still developing, but he could become one of the scariest players in college football if all goes well on that front.
“It’s really weird, just because of how young he is and how he hasn’t been playing ball for that long,” defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said. “But the man is extremely athletic and a freak. As soon as his football skills are really sharp, Jayson’s going to be unstoppable.”
Starters: Cam Brown, Jan Johnson, and Micah Parsons
Reserves: Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Brandon Smith, and Lance Dixon
Penn State’s #LinebackerU reputation is in great shape entering the 2019 season thanks to a nice mix of veteran leadership and young, exciting talent.
Cam Brown and Jan Johnson are the position group’s elder statesmen and two of Penn State’s returning starters on defense. Both players have stood out from a leadership perspective throughout the offseason, and expect them both to build on strong 2018 performances this year.
Brown finished last year as a starting outside linebacker with 63 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss, and he used his strong size to force a team-leading three fumbles. Meanwhile, Johnson posted 72 stops, an interception, and two passes defended from the middle linebacker positions. Both players are known commodities who will bring a steady veteran presence to an otherwise young team.
Another know commodity who’s poised to explode into a superstar this year is sophomore Micah Parsons. Parsons started in one game last year, but he still led Penn State with 83 tackles and added two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. He did so in his first year playing linebacker, which is a testament to his incredible athleticism and ability.
Parsons is one of the most talked-about players on Penn State’s roster, and he’s developing the killer instinct needed to become a star at this level. He obviously contributed a lot as a freshman, and another first-year player who made an impact last season is Jesse Luketa.
Luketa is poised to take on a more significant backup role for the Nittany Lions this season after making 12 appearances last season. The Canadian finished the season with seven tackles while appearing on both special teams and defense. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry said he put so much trust in Luketa because he had the size and ability to play last year, so expect him to see the field even more in 2019.
Ellis Brooks, however, will probably be the first linebacker off the bench for most of the 2019 season. He played in 13 games last year, intercepted a pass, and made 30 total tackles. Most of Penn State’s linebacker depth is fairly young, but the redshirt sophomore brings a full season of experience under his belt to the linebacker room.
Elsewhere, true freshmen Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon will be given every opportunity to contribute in their first collegiate seasons. Pry said both have set themselves up to be “in contention” for snaps this season thanks to their strong summer performances. The duo was Penn State’s headliner in the recruiting class of 2018 and is definitely one to watch in the future.
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Roll your eyes all you want. This is a “We Are” moment if I’ve ever seen one.
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