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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2020 Starting Lineup: Defensive Front Seven

Penn State football’s season opener is growing closer by the day, and there’s plenty of talent to consider in each of the team’s position groups.

Last week, we took a look at the offensive side of the ball, but now it’s the defense’s turn. In terms of their linebackers and defensive line, it seems as if the Nittany Lions always find a way to rebuild at those positions with ease. With plenty of talent on the depth chart, this year won’t be any exception.

While Yetur Gross-Matos, Micah Parsons, and other talented linebackers and linemen will be sorely missed, Penn State will return an exciting mix of veterans and young talent that could lead to lofty expectations.

Here are our projections for what Penn State’s defensive front seven will look like entering the 2020 season.

Defensive Tackle

  • Starters: PJ Mustipher, Antonio Shelton, Fred Hansard
  • Reserves: Judge Culpepper, Hakeem Beamon, Dvon Ellies, Joseph Darkwa, and Aeneas Hawkins

The trio of Mustipher, Shelton, and Hansard is going to be busy this fall. With a breadth of experience between them, I expect all three to rotate in starting roles throughout this season.

Along with Robert Windsor, Mustipher stepped up as a run-stopper in 2019. The then-sophomore put together an impressive season in an increased role that included 37 total tackles, 4.5 for a loss, and a sack. The junior out of Maryland will be a leader for not only the interior line but the entire defense this fall.

As for Shelton and Hansard, the pair of lineman will also see increased roles in 2020. As a redshirt senior with already four seasons under his belt, Shelton is clearly the most experienced defensive tackle in the room. While starting in 12 games last year, Shelton enjoyed his most productive campaign with a career-high 17 total tackles and four for loss.

Hansard appeared in a career-high 12 games last year, and the 6’3″, 324-pound tackle will likely see even more time in this rotation alongside Mustipher and Shelton.

Outside of those three veterans, first-year defensive line coach John Scott Jr. has plenty of young talent to work with on the inside. Judge Culpepper hasn’t gotten a ton of in-game reps other than special teams, but his size and strength will offer some valuable depth to this unit.

During Penn State’s media days, several lineman on either side of the ball were impressed with redshirt freshman Hakeem Beamon’s development in training camp. He appeared in only three games in 2019 but will likely get more use this fall.

Joseph Darkwa, Aeneas Hawkins, and Dvon Ellies round out members of the group who could see time in back up roles this season. The Nittany Lions also boast class of 2020 recruits Cole Brevard and Fatorma Mulbah, in this group, but don’t expect those freshman to get much playing time quite yet.

Defensive End

  • Starters: Shaka Toney, Jayson Oweh
  • Reserves: Adisa Isaac, Shane Simmons, Nick Tarburton, and Smith Vilbert

Penn State’s defensive ends were always one of the most exciting parts of Sean Spencer’s Wild Dog unit. While Spencer is now coaching with the New York Giants, I don’t expect there to be any drop off from these new-look edge rushers under John Scott Jr.

Shaka Toney is the unquestioned leader of this group for good reason. While he may not have received as much attention in 2019 compared to his counterpart Yetur Gross-Matos, Toney quietly put up career-highs across the board with 41 total tackles, eight for a loss, and 6.5 sacks.

The redshirt senior already has 15.5 sacks to his name as a Nittany Lion, including four during the fourth quarter of Penn State’s 2018 win over Indiana.

Toney already explained during Penn State’s media days that he improved on his weight, change of direction, and technique during the Nittany Lions’ extended offseason.

As for who play opposite to Toney this season, there’s no doubt Jayson Oweh sits at the top of the list. Even after playing just one season in Happy Valley, Oweh has already received hype for his freakish athleticism, and was even listed in the first round of several 2021 NFL mock drafts.

Even while the Big Ten season was postponed with no start date in sight, Oweh explained at his media day availability that leaving Penn State for the NFL never crossed his mind. That’s great news for the Nittany Lions, as the New Jersey native put up 21 total tackles, five for a loss, and five sacks in 2019.

While Toney and Oweh are spoken for as the leaders on the edge, other players are certainly expected to play roles of their own. Adisa Isaac has been spoken highly of by teammates and coaches since he stepped on campus, and the sophomore is now poised to earn more snaps this year as a rotational player.

Shane Simmons will also bring plenty of experience to the position group and could add plenty of value throughout this season. The redshirt senior appeared in all 13 games in 2019 and added 19 total tackles. After battling back from injuries, redshirt sophomore Nick Tarburton could play a similar depth role to Simmons.

Young players such as Bryce Mostella, Smith Vilbert, Coziah Izzard and Amin Vanover round out the group. Redshirt junior Dan Vasey is also now listed as a defensive end along with his role as a long snapper.

Linebacker

  • Starters: Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, and Brandon Smith
  • Reserves: Charlie Katshir, Lance Dixon, Max Chizmar, Denver Light, and Curtis Jacobs

There’s no question the Nittany Lions had a mass exodus at the linebacker position after an impressive 2019 campaign. All three starters, Micah Parsons, Jan Johnson, and Cam Brown, have all moved on from college football.

Despite the holes that need to be filled, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that Penn State has the guys to uphold the #LinebackerU tradition.

Parsons was expected to start as an outside linebacker before he decided to opt out for the NFL Draft in August, but fellow Class of 2018 recruit Jesse Luketa has proven that he can play both the inside and outside position.

Luketa appeared in all 13 games as a sophomore in 2019 and even started in two games. The Ottawa native stepped up in his increasing role by putting up 24 total tackles and four pass deflections to boot. Now entering his third year, Luketa will be called upon as one of the leaders of a fairly young group.

Ellis Brooks will be expected to lead Penn State at middle linebacker this season. Brooks had a nice redshirt sophomore campaign in 2019 that includes 39 total tackles and 2.5 sacks, and he even recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Nittany Lions’ win over Michigan State.

Brooks especially showed off his full potential during Penn State’s 59-0 demolishing of Maryland, in which he had a team-high six tackles and recorded all of his sacks on the season.

While both of those players have high expectations surrounding them, it’s hard to match the hype that Brandon Smith has received as a Nittany Lion thus far. The former five-star recruit will likely start at outside linebacker this season after an exciting freshman campaign in 2019.

Smith quite literally burst onto the scene at his first game in Beaver Stadium with this massive hit in the final minutes of Penn State’s Week One win over Idaho.

After that early-season highlight, Smith went on to finish his freshman campaign with 14 total tackles, two of which were for a loss of yards.

While those three will likely earn the early snaps of games, Penn State has plenty of other talented linebackers that will rotate in often throughout this season.

Charlie Katshir hasn’t earned a ton of playing time thus far at Penn State, but Brent Pry has already cited the redshirt sophomore as a key piece to the unit. Lance Dixon, another highly touted member of Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class, will also likely be asked to step in at the outside linebacker position.

Max Chizmar, Denver Light, and Robbie Dwyer could also see snaps in different situations. Curtis Jacobs, Zuriah Fisher, and Tyler Elsdon, the only three linebackers to join Penn State’s Class of 2020, round out the group.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a junior majoring in digital and print journalism and is Onward State's sports editor. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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