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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2021 Starting Lineup: Defensive Front Seven

With exactly one month to go until Penn State football’s season opener against Wisconsin, several key position battles across the board have yet to be settled.

Following an offseason consisting of three NFL Draft selections and two key transfers moving away from Brent Pry’s defensive front seven unit, the makeup of the retooled Nittany Lion defense will look vastly different in comparison to its status from a year ago.

Despite losing three starters on the defensive line, James Franklin was able to land a flurry of experienced transfers to replace Odafe Oweh, Shaka Toney, and current Florida Gator, Antonio Shelton. Although the trenches will become host to a plethora of unfamiliar names, Brent Pry’s Linebacker U group returns all three starters from 2020, even with the departure of Micah Parsons.

Throughout the James Franklin era, the front seven has statistically stood as one of the strongest defensive fronts in the Big Ten. Based on the current array of talent at Brent Pry’s disposal, this season should present similar success. Here are our current projections for what Penn State’s defensive front seven will look like entering the 2021 campaign.

Defensive Tackle

  • Starters: PJ Mustipher, Derrick Tangelo, Fred Hansard
  • Reserves: Hakeem Beamon, D’Von Ellies, Aeneas Hawkins, Joseph Darkwa, Coziah Izzard, Amin Vanover, Cole Brevard

Entering his senior season as the undisputed leader of the defensive line, PJ Mustipher is poised to build off of his most productive campaign as a Nittany Lion, resulting in an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention nod. The Maryland native compiled 35 tackles in just nine games a year ago, including 1.5 takedowns for a loss and a sack.

Mustipher’s familiarity and guidance will be crucial in the development of Derrick Tangelo, the newest member of the defensive tackle group via the transfer portal from Duke. The former Blue Devil brings four years of experience and 113 career stops to Happy Valley, along with 4.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. His proven run-stopping ability and sturdy 310-pound frame should instantly give John Scott Jr. a disruptive plug-and-play force up front.

The final centerpiece of the starting rotation will likely be Fred Hansard, a program staple who has yet to fully translate his potential into on-field production. Throughout his four -ear career, Hansard has missed a significant amount of time due to injury, but the New Jersey native was able to stay healthy for the majority for the 2020 season.

In eight games a year ago, Hansard tallied just six tackles, including one for a loss. Although his impact on paper is lacking, the former Florida commit was regarded as a highly touted four-star prospect in high school, earning

offers from Alabama, Ohio State, and USC.

Aside from the three projected starters who carry a combined 11 years of collegiate playing experience, the remainder of the depth chart is littered with youth. Hakeem Beamon and D’Von Ellies were the unit’s top two reserves a season ago, and are expected to fulfill similar roles in 2021.

Standing at 6’4″, 273-pounds, Beamon gives the Nittany Lions a much-needed change of pace inside. His defensive end-like frame allows him to use his advanced hand technique paired with speed and explosion at the line of scrimmage, similarly to how Kevin Givens was utilized in Brent Pry’s system three years ago.

Ellies, who hails from the same high school as Mustipher, only appeared in three games last season, but still managed to register three tackles and a sack in limited time. After a strong series of offseason workouts, the redshirt sophomore is up to 304 pounds, an impressive 12-pound increase from the previous year. Ellies plays a similar punishing style in comparison to Tangelo, and will likely translate into a future starter behind a year of learning behind the veteran.

The rest of the unit, consisting of Hawkins, Darkwa, Izzard, Vanover, and Brevard, remain unproven with just six games of playing experience between the group. With only five experienced defensive tackles solidified in the rotation, Hawkins and Izzard are expected to be the pieces who make the biggest leap in progression from 2020.

Defensive End

  • Starters: Adisa Isaac, Arnold Ebiketie
  • Reserves: Nick Tarburton, Smith Vilbert, Zuriah Fisher, Bryce Mostella, Rodney McGraw

The defensive end room sits as the sole position group tasked with replacing both starters from a season ago, in Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney. Filling the shoes of two high-ceiling NFL Draft selections is never easy, but Adisa Issac and Arnold Ebiketie are well-equipped to exceed expectations as projected first-year starters.

Entering his third year as a Nittany Lion, Isaac carries an eerily similar frame to Toney. Both speed rushers stand at 6’4″, and are separated in stature by a mere five-pounds. At 248 pounds, Isaac possesses rare quickness off the edge, displayed by his impressive 4.52 40-yard dash time. The Brooklyn native fits the mold as the next great speed rusher out of Happy Valley, and should immediately burst onto the national scene after learning from two of the best at his position a season ago.

The other projected cornerstone on the defensive line, Arnold Ebiketie, began his career in the state of Pennsylvania, but as a member of the Temple Owls. In his first year as a starter in 2020, the lanky defensive end exploded for 42 total tackles, including 8.5 stops for a loss in only six games. Additionally, Ebiketie added four sacks and three forced fumbles to his season-long resumé, earning him a spot on the All-AAC Second Team.

This offseason, Ebiketie took full advantage of Dwight Guat’s performance enhancement program by adding 13 pounds to his already terrorizing stature. Between the six new transfer products brought into the Nittany Lion locker room through the transfer portal, none of which are set to have the same immediate impact as Ebiketie in 2021.

Behind the two clearcut favorites to start, Nick Tarburton is set to emerge as an hybrid-type edge rusher following several setbacks spurred by a lower back injury. After arriving on campus as a projected linebacker, Tarburton has worked tirelessly throughout the last three off-seasons to improve his craft as a pass rusher. The Pennsylvania native notched just two stops in seven games as a redshirt sophomore, but has made career-defining strides this offseason.

“He’s had an unbelievable offseason for us right now, not only from a health perspective, from a physical perspective, from a leadership perspective as well,” James Franklin said during spring camp. “We’re expecting him to have a significant role on our defense and on our team.”

Similarly to Tarburton, Zuriah Fisher was also tasked with moving from his natural position as a linebacker to defensive end for the Nittany Lions. As a true freshman a season ago, Fisher made his debut appearance in the season finale against Illinois, but did not register a hit.

To round out the depth chart, Smith Vilbert and Bryce Mostella provide the Nittany Lion defensive front with another element of much-needed length. Both Vilbert and Mostella stand at 6’6″, but have yet to fully grow into their frames. At 230 pounds, Mostella is a similar project to Penn State great Carl Nassib, who made the jump from 244 pounds out of high school to eventually reaching the 272-pound mark in 2015, which propelled him towards capturing the program sack record.

Linebacker

  • Starters: Jesse Luketa, Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith
  • Reserves: Curtis Jacobs, Charlie Katshir, Tyler Elsdon, Kobe King, Robbie Dwyer, Max Chizmar

For the first time since 2012, Linebacker U is set to return all three starters from the previous season. The trio is led by fifth-year senior Ellis Brooks, who has played a pivotal role in Brent Pry’s system dating back to 2018.

Although the Virginia product has appeared in 35 games throughout his career as a Nittany Lion, Brooks made his first start a season ago. In nine contests as a first-teamer, Brooks led the defense with 60 tackles, including 26 solo stops. Additionally, the anchor in the middle totaled 5.5 tackles for loss, and a team-best two forced fumbles.

To the outside of Brooks, proven leaders in Jesse Luketa and Brandon Smith are projected to start at the strong-side and weak-side positions, respectively. Luketa, who is entering his fourth season with the team, notched 59 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, as a team captain last year. The Canadian has made ten starts over the previous two seasons, and is a proven high-level defender.

The theme of continuity in the heart of the defense rounds out with Brandon Smith, who is poised for a breakout season after getting his feet wet as a young starter in his sophomore season a year ago. The former five-star recruit led James Franklin’s squad by nabbing eight tackles for loss, good for eleventh-best in the conference. The rangy ball hawk also grabbed his first-career interception in a come-from-behind effort against Nebraska.

Behind the solidified group of veterans, Curtis Jacobs should receive the most playing time between the host of reserves. Jacobs, who is entering is second full-season as a Nittany Lion, entered the college ranks as the second ranked outside linebacker prospect coupled with a five-star distinction in high school.

Throughout the offseason, there have been rumblings regarding Luketa moving from linebacker to defensive end, which would slot Jacobs as the next man up on the outside. If depth on the front edge proves to be a concern for the Nittany Lions later in the season, the Maryland native fits perfectly as an instant, plug-and-play starter for Brent Pry to replace Luketa.

Along with Jacobs, fellow sophomore reserve Tyler Elsdon turned several heads on the defensive staff throughout winter workouts and spring camp. The in-state product only saw action in one contest during his first campaign, but has shown visible signs of offseason improvement, according to James Franklin.

“The thing I thought [Elsdon] did so well this spring was running sideline to sideline making plays,” Franklin said. “He’s the guy that probably jumped out and probably made as many strides as anyone.”

Two other unproven commodities in Charlie Katshir and Kobe King should also receive minutes in Brent Pry’s rotation this fall. Katshir, who is entering his fourth season, has earned Academic All-Big Ten honors the past two years, but has yet to make a splash on the field beyond handling special teams duties.

King is entering his true freshman campaign, but has already grabbed the attention of James Franklin for immediately having a ready-to-play Big Ten frame at 243 pounds. King and his twin brother, Kalen, stole the show during both live action spring scrimmages in April for wrecking havoc as members of the second-team defense.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a freshman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania majoring in journalism. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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