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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2020 Starting Lineup: Secondary

Penn State football’s season opener is just over a week away as we close out a long and chaotic offseason.

Previously, we’ve looked at the offensive backfield, the rest of the offense, and the defensive front seven. Now, it’s time to take a look at the secondary.

The Nittany Lions lost two starters this offseason when Garrett Taylor and John Reid both graduated. Additionally, the team lost a key piece when cornerback Donovan Johnson was ruled out for the season with an injury.

However, the secondary returns experienced veterans and young players ready to fill the void left by Taylor, Reid, and Johnson.

Here are our projections for what Penn State’s secondary will look like entering this season.

Cornerback

  • Starters: Tariq Castro-Fields, Keaton Ellis
  • Reserves: Marquis Wilson, Joey Porter Jr., Daequan Hardy

The cornerbacks are going to be led by senior Tariq Castro-Fields. Castro-Fields is by far the most experienced player in the room as he enters his fourth season in Happy Valley. Last year, he totaled 52 tackles, eight passes defended, three tackles for loss, and two interceptions.

In 2019, the secondary was prone to giving up the big plays, especially in the second half of the season. For Castro-Fields, it boils down to one major thing.

“I think the biggest thing is communication, especially as far as passing,” Castro-Fields said during media day last week. “When you’re playing all them zones and things like that you have to call out routes. Everybody has to be in the right spot and you got to trust that the person next to you is going to be in that spot. We’ve just really been emphasizing communication in practice.”

The likely starter opposite of Castro-Fields is State College’s own Keaton Ellis. Ellis earned valuable playing time last season as a true freshman, which will presumably give him an advantage over some of the other guys in the room.

Ellis started one game last season and served as a key reserve behind Castro-Fields and Reid. He totaled 14 tackles, two passes defended, and an impressive three forced fumbles.

Ellis and the other cornerbacks have really embraced the competition this offseason and are using it to elevate their game.

“It’s really just fun to watch,” Ellis said. “The competition is at a high level. We’re going at it every day. Everybody is playing really well right now, from [Daequan Hardy] to [Joey Porter Jr.] to [Marquis Wilson], and everybody. It’s been really helpful that we have that competition because it makes everyone better. I think we’re becoming a better group from it.”

Ellis mentioned some of the other young guys in the room competing for playing time. Marquis Wilson was another true freshman last season who played well. The Connecticut native totaled 17 tackles and two interceptions in 10 games played in 2019. As the presumptive lead-backup behind Castro-Fields and Ellis, Wilson should have the chance to improve upon a solid freshman campaign.

Joey Porter Jr. and Daequan Hardy rarely saw the field as true freshmen last season. Porter Jr., a former four-star recruit, was the top player from Pennsylvania in the 2019 recruiting cycle and will have the chance to earn more reps for Brent Pry’s defense.

Hardy, on the other hand, came to Happy Valley as an under the radar three-star recruit. He, like Porter Jr., should see more reps during the 2020 season.

The Nittany Lions have three other cornerbacks on their roster entering the 2020 season. Makai Self and Sebastian Costantini both redshirted their freshmen seasons in 2020. Additionally, Joseph Johnson III arrived at Penn State this fall as a three-star recruit.

Safety

  • Starters: Lamont Wade, Jaquan Brisker
  • Reserves: Jonathan Sutherland, Trent Gordon, Tyler Rudolph, Enzo Jennings

Lamont Wade enters the season as the undoubted leader at safety. He’s coming off by far his best season, totaling 67 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, five passes defended, and three forced fumbles.

Safeties coach Tim Banks has raved about the versatility of Wade, saying his days at cornerback have helped add to his game.

“He is kind of a swiss-army knife,” Banks said. “He brings a certain level of coverability from his days of playing corner, but obviously playing at the back end at safety he also possesses some physicality that maybe some corners wouldn’t have. We think he’s the ultimate nickel, to be quite honest with you — because of the coverability, the physicality, he’s super competitive.”

Wade will be joined by Jaquan Brisker at the back end of the Nittany Lions’ defense. Brisker played his first season at Penn State last season after transferring from Lackawanna Community College and made an impact in a backup role.

He totaled 31 tackles, four passes defended, and two interceptions last season, and will attempt to improve upon that this year in a more prominent role.

Head coach James Franklin believes Brisker could be poised for a breakout season.

“I think there is a lot of excitement in our program for Jaquan [Brisker],” Franklin said. “He looks unbelievable. He’s just developed so much. I think we all know typically you see a dramatic change of those junior college players in year two, and we see that with him. His confidence, his understanding of the scheme, his athleticism, his speed, how explosive he is.”

Franklin continued, saying Brisker is “an impressive-looking guy right now.”

Behind Wade and Brisker is redshirt junior Jonathan Sutherland. Sutherland has been a constant for Penn State football, whether it be on special teams or as a backup safety. The Canadian has totaled 61 tackles in his two years on the field for the Nittany Lions.

Sutherland has also earned the respect of his teammates, as a select few believe he should receive the honor of wearing No. 0 this season.

Trent Gordon made a position switch this offseason from corner to safety and will attempt to earn some valuable snaps at his new position. As a corner in 2019, he totaled 20 tackles and defended five passes.

Tyler Rudolph and Enzo Jennings will provide some depth at the safety position. Rudolph, a true freshman last season, didn’t see the field much in 2019. Jennings, who arrived at Penn State as a four-star recruit this fall, will attempt to make an immediate impact.

Other players in Penn State’s safety room include Drew Hartlaub, Cody Romano, Jaden Seider, Dylan Farronato, and Ji’Ayir Brown.

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

Gabe is a sophomore majoring in journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He grew up in Lindenhurst, NY and has had the absolute misfortune of rooting for the Jets, Mets, and Knicks. If you want to see his rants on all of his teams follow him on Twitter @gabeangieri and direct all hate mail and death threats to [email protected]

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