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A Way-Too-Early Look At Penn State Football’s 2022 Defense

Although Penn State football disappointed this season, one of the team’s key strengths of the 2021-22 campaign was its defense. The group managed to keep the Nittany Lions in games all season long and, at some points, was considered among the best in the country.

The Nittany Lions’ defense allowed 352.9 yards per game along with 17.3 points, the latter of which was good for the seventh-best mark in the nation.

While the unit was great for much of the year, many impactful veteran players opted to leave the program for the 2022 NFL Draft. To add, eight-year defensive coordinator Brett Pry earned himself the head coaching job at Virginia Tech. Former Miami head coach Manny Diaz will take over as the new architect of the unit.

With many changes likely on the way, here’s our way-too-early projection of what Penn State football’s defense may look like in 2022.

Defensive End

Starters/Rotations: Nick Tarburton, Smith Vilbert, Zuriah Fisher, Adisa Issac
Backups/Reserves: Davon Townley Jr., Bryce Mostella, Rodney McGraw, Spencer Perry, Jake Wilson, Dani Dennis-Sutton

Edge rushing will be an interesting area for Penn State this upcoming year. Arnold Ebiketie is leaving for the NFL draft after posting a team-high 9.5 sacks last season. Ebiketie brought a spark to this defense and made an immediate impact in the season opener against Wisconsin, so he is clearly a player the Nittany Lions will miss.

Nick Tarburton will likely be relied upon as a leader for the group. The redshirt senior will try to become an every-game starter next season after totaling 29 tackles and one sack in five games this year.

Smith Vilbert should be another player attempting to take a big step next year after a solid showing against Arkansas in the Outback Bowl. The 6’6″ redshirt junior managed three sacks in a losing effort to the Razorbacks.

Adisa Issac and Zuriah Fisher should also get more playing time after not seeing much at different points during the season. Fisher saw time in just three games this fall, while Issac missed out on a key season with an injury.

Of course, we can’t forget about incoming five-star recruit Dani Dennis-Sutton, who should arrive on campus over the summer. He impressed at the All-American Bowl and should have no trouble fitting in alongside Penn State’s top defensive pass-rushers.

The rest of the group will likely need some serious playing time before any other spot can be filled. Davon Townley Jr., Bryce Mostella, Rodney McGraw, Spencer Perry, and Jake Wilson all will fight to earn a bigger role during the 2022 season.

Defensive Tackle

Starters/Rotations: PJ Mustipher, Amin Vanover, Coziah Izzard, Dvon Ellies 
Backups/Reserves: Jordan Van Den Berg, Fatorma Mulbah, Hakeem Beamon, Cole Brevard, Zane Durant, Alex Furmanek

After missing half the season with an injury, PJ Mustipher will return for his fifth year next season and will hope to pick up right where he left off. Mustipher totaled 21 tackles and one sack in only five games, and he should use the upcoming season to regain some draft stock ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft.

Coziah Izzard was a big help this year after Mustipher went down by taking over the starting job for the remainder of the season. Izzard totaled 21 tackles and two sacks in 13 games stepping up big for the defense, clogging up the middle in Mustipher’s absence. Amin Vanover and Dvon Ellies should also try to improve after getting playing time due to injuries and opt-outs.

Other players like Jordan Van Den Berg, Fatorma Mulbah, and Hakeem Beamon will provide depth for the Nittany Lions after getting few opportunities throughout the season. Incoming freshman Zane Durant will also try to take the next step as he enters the college football scene.

Linebacker

Starters: Curtis Jacobs, Charlie Katshir, Tyler Elsdon, Jonathan Sutherland
Backups/Reserves: Kobe King, Jamari Buddin, Dominic DeLuca, Robbie Dwyer, Cody Romano, Ben Chizmar

Arguably the strongest and deepest part of this defense in 2021 was its linebacker room, but with many players leaving for the NFL, this could be a questionable position for next season. Ellis Brooks, Bradon Smith, and linebacker-defensive end hybrid Jesse Luketa are NFL Draft-bound, and those three players alone accounted for nearly 30% of all tackles made by Penn State defenders this past season.

Veterans like Curtis Jacobs and Jonathan Sutherland will need to step into a big role in 2022 and will get a chance to lead this defense. Jacobs stepped up big in the Outback Bowl against Arkansas earlier this month and will be the leader of this room next year. He totaled 61 tackles last year and three interceptions. Sutherland, a sixth-year senior, will also need to make an impact. He’s expected to fully move to linebacker next season, hoping to help a position with very little on-field experience.

After Jacobs and Sutherland, the only other linebackers with true playing experience are Charlie Katshir and Tyler Elsdon. Elsdon had a strong showing in his first start in the Outback Bowl against Arkansas totaling four tackles but needs more on-field experience. As for Katshir, the redshirt senior totaled 10 tackles in five games this season.

The Nittany Lions need Kobe King and Jamari Buddin to step up, as the redshirt freshmen will try to jump into a bigger role.

Rounding out the room are Dominic DeLuca, Robbie Dwyer, Cody Romano, and Ben Chizmar, all players who lack much-needed playing time before they make an immediate impact for the Nittany Lions.

Cornerback

Starters/Rotations: Joey Porter Jr., Daequan Hardy, Johnny Dixon, Kalen King
Backups/Reserves: Marquis Wilson, Jeffrey Davis Jr, Ethan Susen, Kaleb Brown, Jace Tutty, Zakee Wheatle

The secondary could prove to be one of the more important parts of Penn State’s defense next year. The Nittany Lions will lose a veteran in Tariq Castro-Fields, but junior Joey Porter Jr. will stay and try to build on what’s been a solid Penn State career so far. Porter totaled 51 tackles and grabbed one interception this fall.

Alongside Porter Jr. will be Daequan Hardy and Johnny Dixon, who will likely slide into starting positions. Also, possibly a big part of the secondary is sophomore Kalen King, who played nine games last season as a true freshman and showed some strong flashes.

Outside of those four players, Marquis Wilson is the only other Nittany Lion who has some playing experience. Jeffrey Davis Jr, Ethan Susen, Kaleb Brown, Jace Tutty, and Zakee Wheatle will all likely provide depth over the next season.

Safety

Starters/Rotations:  Ji’Ayir Brown, Keaton Ellis, Jaylen Reed
Backups/Reserves: Jaden Seider, Sebastian Costantini, Bobby Walchak, Fredrick Lesieur

The other part of the secondary looks like the most experienced of the bunch with the return of Ji’Ayir Brown, Keaton Ellis, and Jaylen Reed. Losing Jaquan Brisker will be huge, as the All-American safety could very well be on his way to a successful NFL career. Brisker was the leader of the defense and, in many eyes, the leader of the entire team, and replacing him will not be easy.

Ji’Ayir Brown had an amazing game against Arkansas when grabbed two interceptions and showed that he is ready to take the next step as a leader on this defense. Since moving to safety, Keaton Ellis has played fairly well and will be a big part of this team next year. Jaylen Reed should also receive serious starting time next year.

After those three players, juniors Jaden Seider and Sebastian Costantini have chances to improve into bigger roles for next season. Youngsters Bobby Walchak and Fredrick Lesieur should provide depth for the safety room in 2022, too.


Excited for Penn State’s 2022 season already? Check out our way-too-early projection for the Nittany Lions’ offense.

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About the Author

Matt Brown

Matt is a sophmore majoring in Broadcast Journalism from Bensalem, Pa. Matt is a huge Philadelphia sports fan, and an overall sports fan in general. When not watching sports you'll find him watching reruns of The Office or Friends. To reach him follow him on Twitter and Instagram @matt_brown63 or email him at [email protected]

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