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Penn State Bolsters Strong Defensive End Talent Heading Into 2021 Season

After losing defensive ends Shaka Toney and Odafe Oweh to the NFL this past offseason, Penn State football is now searching for two new starters at the position.

At media day on Saturday, James Franklin announced that defensive end Adisa Isaac will likely miss the whole season due to an injury suffered this offseason. Isaac’s loss is significant, as he was expected to compete for a starting role this season.

Defensive line coach John Scott Jr. acknowledged the significance of the loss, but he also said there are plenty of other guys at the position that are primed to make an impact.

“Obviously we love Adisa, and he means a lot to us,” Scott said. “We all love Adisa, that’s our brother.”

“I’ve been blessed to be at a place like this where they’ve recruited well at the defensive end spot, so it’s always next man up mentality,” Scott continued. “We have good, young talent behind him, and now those guys have the opportunity to rise up and there’s a great opportunity there. “

As far as the talent behind Isaac, Scott mentioned redshirt sophomore Smith Vilbert as someone he’s “really excited about.” In fact, defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Vilbert has similar qualities to former Penn State star Yetur Gross-Matos, and that he’s “most excited” about Vilbert heading into camp.

Redshirt junior Nick Tarburton was a hot topic at Saturday’s media day. After battling injuries for much of his college career, the defensive end is finally healthy and ready to contribute. This summer, Tarburton was able to fully focus on improving his game rather than dealing with the injury bug that has impacted him in the past.

“Some of the biggest things I would say would be — just from a technique standpoint — footwork, handwork, speed, agility,” Tarburton said. “From a speed perspective, just getting quicker. I’m just doing anything I can to get better now that I’m healthy, no limitations.”

Tarburton has many fans within the program, with his defensive coordinator being one of the biggest. Pry is ready for the world to see the Nick Tarburton that those inside the program see on a daily basis.

“I’m a big Nick [Tarburton] fan,” Pry said. “He’s had some unfortunate circumstances with some injuries over the years that have kept everyone from knowing what we know about Nick. He’s not just a very good defensive end prospect, he’s one of the best leaders in our units. Looking for a big season out of Nick.”

Scott echoed a lot of the same, raving about Tarburton’s leadership and other qualities.

“I think Nick Tarburton, when you think about him, you think about his leadership,” Scott said. “I love his toughness, I love his grit. His mentality is he’s going to give it all every play. He’s a leader. Our guys love him.”

Another player poised to make an impact this year is Temple transfer Arnold “AK” Ebiketie. Ebiketie has made a name for himself since arriving on campus earlier this year for spring ball, as Scott described him as “super dynamic and explosive.”

Additionally, Pry acknowledged Ebiketie’s talent but mentioned it’s his intelligence that’s really impressed him thus far. Tarburton joined in on the praise for Ebiketie, saying that it was a “great pickup.”

“He’s awesome, man,” Tarburton said. “He’s a guy that’s just going to work hard every single play. He’s real twitchy, quick off the edge, and also has a physical presence that’s impressive.”

A wildcard at the position could come from last year’s starting linebacker, Jesse Luketa. Luketa has been getting some work at defensive end this offseason, and he’s expected to get the bulk of his work there during training camp.

While it’s no sure thing that Luketa will make the full-time switch to defensive end, the potential position change for Luketa is being made to maximize his assets and what he can do well.

“I’m excited about Jesse having a dual role in our defense,” Pry said. “Jesse is one of those guys, like Micah [Parsons], like Nick Tarburton, Cam Brown… they have traits to both positions.”

“Yesterday was the first day I had actually seen him do some work, but I like Jesse,” Scott said. “I think Jesse is a really, really good football player that can play a couple positions. He does some things that are really, really natural at that position.”

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

Gabe is a senior majoring in journalism and is suddenly Onward State's managing editor. He grew up in Lindenhurst, New York, and has had the absolute misfortune of rooting for the Jets, Mets, and Knicks. If you want to see his bad sports takes, follow him on Twitter @gabeangieri and direct all hate mail and death threats to [email protected]

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