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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2019 Starting Lineup: Secondary

It’s August, folks, and that means Penn State football’s return is just under a month away. The Nittany Lions’ defense is poised to be a force to be reckoned with in this upcoming season, thanks to contributions from its strong defensive line and linebackers. Penn State’s secondary is no exception — even after losing a great deal of talent to the NFL this past offseason, as program standouts Amani Oruwariye and Nick Scott joined the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams, respectively.

Penn State still has a great deal of talent in its defensive backs to help the team improve upon recent seasons.

Here’s how we expect the team’s cornerbacks and safeties to shake out heading into the 2019 season.

Cornerback

Starters: John Reid, Tariq Castro-Fields
Reserves: Donovan Johnson, Trent Gordon

Despite the significant loss of Oruwariye this offseason, James Franklin and his fellow coaches feel confident with their group of cornerbacks.

“I like our depth, length, our talent at the corner position,” said Franklin at the team’s media day press conference. “We went into spring ball feeling like we had some question marks at safety, but then after spring, we felt like we were probably a little bit further along there than we thought, and then obviously we got some guys that have joined our program in the summer that are going to help add to that as well.”

Program veterans John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields should be locks to start at corner for the Nittany Lions heading into 2019. Reid will return for his third season at cornerback and attempt to build on a decent 2018 season in which he notched 24 total tackles, two interceptions, and an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod from the conference’s coaches. The Mount Laurel, NJ, native bounced back nicely from a lower-body injury that forced him to miss the entire 2017 season.

Reid’s partner in crime for the 2019 season will be different now that Oruwariye is off to the NFL. That’s where Castro-Fields steps in. Although he primarily contributed off the bench, Castro-Fields had a nice 2018 season in which he totaled 32 tackles and broke up seven passes. His experience sets him up nicely for the starting role heading into 2019.

Aside from becoming a starting cornerback for the team, Castro-Fields is excited to embrace a new role as a veteran leader for the Nittany Lions and feels confident with his group of players.

“I think [depth] is something for the coaches to worry about,” he said. “I think as long as I do my job of bringing the younger guys up in [the cornerback room], I think everyone will be ready.”

Like most of the team, Castro-Fields has tried to emphasize finishing games and playing all four quarters throughout summer camp and practice.

“The Citrus Bowl was kind of hard for us,” he said . “I remember [defensive coordinator Brent Pry talking about being “finishers” toward the end of the game], I was touched by that, seeing what our defense put out on the field in the fourth quarter. I think we’ve been doing everything we’re supposed to do, touching the line, trying to do all the little details within working out and practice. I think we’re doing great right now. We’re on the path.”

Despite lacking the experience of Reid and Castro-Fields, likely backup corners Donovan Johnson and Trent Gordon are the best bets to come off the bench this season.

The pair have only combined to appear in 16 games in 2018 for the Nittany Lions, and neither has started a game at cornerback. Johnson totaled 16 total tackles and three pass deflections last year, while Gordon recorded just one tackle. Nonetheless, Johnson and Gordon seem to be Penn State’s best options at a somewhat-shallow position heading into the season.

Safety

Starters: Garret Taylor, Lamont Wade
Reserves: Jonathan Sutherland, Jaquan Brisker

Garret Taylor is a no-brainer when it comes to starting safety. The rising senior appeared in 13 games for the Nittany Lions in 2018 and started 12. Taylor finished his junior season with three interceptions and 71 total tackles, including a huge interception in Penn State’s 27-26 loss to Ohio State last year.

“GT [Garrett Taylor] has had a great summer,” said Franklin. “He looks unbelievable. He’s as lean and explosive and as fast as he’s been, and he obviously has tremendous experience.”

Penn State’s second starter at safety will likely be Lamont Wade, who took a brief foray into the NCAA’s transfer portal this offseason. Nonetheless, the junior safety decided to stay in Happy Valley and is back with the team, ready to compete for the starting job.

The Clairton, PA, native was named an honorable mention on the Big Ten’s all-freshman team in 2017 and finished tied for the team lead with 10 special teams tackles. More recently, Wade appeared in all 13 games for the Nittany Lions in 2018 and recorded 18 total tackles.

Heading into 2019, Wade is excited to work with new defensive backs and act as a leader for the Nittany Lions now that he’s a program veteran.

“Depth isn’t a concern at all,” said Wade. “We have players, and when you have players, when you’ve got talent, even though I haven’t played as much as I’ve wanted to, I’ve still played enough to have a decent amount of experience. Now I have a veteran role on this team and can help show guys the ropes, help them come along faster. The game’s slowed down tremendously for me.”

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry had much praise for Wade at a press conference this week and noted how hard he’s worked and trained throughout the year.

“Wade is playing his best football right now,” said Pry. “He had a great winter, a really good spring, had a good summer. I mean, he’s closer than he’s ever been to reaching his potential. He’s an enthusiastic player. He brings a lot of energy to practice, and so, I’m super excited about what Lamont is doing right now.”

Jonathan Sutherland, on the other hand, is slated to be the first safety off the bench in 2019. Sutherland recorded 38 total tackles in his impressive 2018 season and forced a fumble on a punt return against Indiana. His physical style of play will certainly allow him to see plenty of playing time off the bench this season.

JuCo transfer Jaquan Brisker is poised to fill out the second bench spot for Penn State in 2019. The free safety played two seasons at Lackawanna Community College in Scranton, PA, and is eligible to play now that he’s officially enrolled. Even if he doesn’t see as many snaps as Sutherland, his combination of speed and size will allow him to make an impact in one way or another.

“Brisker certainly brings a high degree of talent and length and speed,” said Pry. “He’s got some corner qualities, but tackles like a safety. You know, it’s still early going. He’s been on campus for, you know, a couple of weeks and he’s had one practice. Being an older guy and playing at Lackawanna and evaluating him as a junior college player gives us a little better idea of what we’re getting than a guy straight out of high school.”

Newfound leader Wade feels confident and comfortable with his group of safeties and cornerbacks, and he certainly didn’t shy away from giving them praise this past week.

“[Penn State’s] secondary is amazing, honestly,” he said. “We have some veteran guys in Tariq [Castro-Fields], John Reid, and Garrett [Taylor], who know what to do and what you’re going to get from them. You know they’re going to execute, you know they’re going to make plays. So, honestly, our secondary has become a real strength on this team.”

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt is a sophomore majoring in journalism and is Onward State's social media manager. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football aficionado, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza. His favorite shows include Community, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development, and he'll probably talk your ear off about them. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ for bad sports takes or email him at [email protected]

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