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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2022 Starting Lineup: Defensive Front Seven

Penn State football is almost back, folks.

We are two Saturdays Thursdays away from seeing the Nittany Lions take the field at Ross-Ade Stadium, and Penn State’s defense is undergoing some pretty significant turnover.

Manny Diaz is now at the helm following Brent Pry’s departure for Virginia Tech, and the Nittany Lions are coming off an offseason that also saw the departure of defensive front seven stars like Arnold Ebiketie, Brandon Smith, and Jesse Luketa. Luckily for Diaz and Penn State, PJ Mustipher will return for his fifth year along with the re-addition of Adisa Isaac, who missed the entire 2021 season due to injury.

Last year, Penn State had one of the best defensive fronts in the Big Ten. But with the departure of key veterans, it will be up to some younger players to step up to fill those shoes. Here are our current projections for what Penn State’s defensive front seven will look like entering the 2022 season.

Defensive Tackle

  • Starters: PJ Mustipher, Hakeem Beamon
  • Reserves: Coziah Izzard, Dvon Ellies, Alex Furmanek, Jordan van den Berg, Fatorma Mulbah, Kaleb Artis, Zane Durant

Well, it comes as no surprise to anyone that PJ Mustipher will serve as the anchor for Penn State’s defense. After sustaining a season-ending injury in Penn State’s loss to Iowa, Mustipher is poised to have a strong year and could be set to go as early as week one.

Mustipher registered 21 total tackles and one sack in Penn State’s first five games of the 2021 season and 35 tackles in just nine games in 2020. Those are some impressive numbers, and he’s only going to keep improving, granted he stays healthy.

Hakeem Beamon will also be a focal point of the front seven after missing all of last season. The redshirt junior has only played in 11 games in his career, registering nine tackles and 1.5 for a loss, and was projected to become a starter in 2021 prior to his absence. He may have a slow start to the season, but he will be a force along with Mustipher on the defensive line once he hits his stride.

It’s no time to sleep on Coziah Izzard or Dvon Ellies, though. After struggling to fill the big shoes of Mustipher during his absence, both have been making noise this offseason with a potential starting gig up for grabs. Izzard is coming off a solid 2021 campaign in which he registered 21 total tackles, two sacks, and forced one fumble. Ellies appeared in all 13 games last season and found more playing time toward the end of the year. Clocking in at 6’1″ and 302 pounds, he could provide Penn State with a major size advantage on the defensive line.

Defensive End

  • Starters: Adisa Isaac, Nick Tarburton
  • Reserves: Chop Robinson, Dani Dennis-Sutton, Amin Vanover, Smith Vilbert, Davon Townley, Rodney McGraw

Adisa Isaac is coming off a torn achilles that sidelined him for the entire 2021 season in which he was projected to be a starter, and Manny Diaz sure will be happy to have him back. The 6’4″, 249-pounder possesses rare quickness and agility that’ll will give Penn State a massive speed boost on the edge. Similar to Beamon, he may start slow since he has missed time, but that won’t stop him from tearing it up on the edge in the heart of the season.

Tarburton, on the other hand, is entering his fifth year with the program and played in all 13 games for the Nittany Lions last season, recording 30 tackles, four for a loss, and one sack. Known as a solid piece on the defensive line, Tarburton turned heads with his phenomenal Outback Bowl performance, as he recorded eight tackles, two for a loss, and one sack. If his momentum carries forward to this season, he he could be in store for a better 2022.

Chop Robinson isn’t far behind, though. Playing at linebacker as a true freshman at Maryland last year, he will need to get the hang of things at defensive end before he makes a sizable impact. But, the 6’3″, 242-pound defenseman still has a very high ceiling and could still provide great contributions off the edge.

Of course, a lot of attention has also been going to former five-star prospect Dani Dennis-Sutton. He has one of the highest ceilings a true freshman could have, but it isn’t fair to expect him to make an immediate impact. He will get playing time and could even rise to the top of the rotation, but his development in training camp will play a big part in that.

Smith Vilbert could also be an interesting player to watch heading into the 2022 season. The redshirt junior played in all 13 games in 2021 but turned heads when he tied an Outback Bowl record by recording three sacks. His momentum could carry forward into this season, giving Penn State solid depth at the defensive end position.

Linebacker

  • Starters: Curtis Jacobs, Jonathan Sutherland, Tyler Elsdon
  • Reserves: Kobe King, Abdul Carter, Bobby Walchak, Robbie Dwyer, Dominic DeLuca, Cody Romano, Jamari Buddin, Charlie Katshir

“Linebacker U” had some holes to fill after the departures of Brandon Smith and Jesse Luketa, but it seems like we are getting a better idea of who will fill their shoes.

Curtis Jacobs will be Penn State’s most experienced linebacker heading into the season and is coming off an impressive finish to the 2021 campaign. The Glen Burnie, Maryland, native recorded a career-high 10 total tackles in the Outback Bowl and tagged along one sack, too.

Sliding into the “field backer” spot will be Jonathan Sutherland, who is entering his sixth year with the Nittany Lions. The Ottawa native shifted to linebacker for the Outback Bowl and recorded five total tackles. Even though he has limited experience at the position, Franklin and Diaz both have confidence in the change.

“When we kind of looked at Sutherland and his career, he has played his best football when he’s been closest to the ball…I think, right now, Sutherland gives us the best ability to get our 11 best guys on the field,” Franklin said in his spring ball press conference. “But, it also allows us to come play with what I think in 2022 works more times than not, which is more of a [defensive back] with linebacker traits than the opposite.”

As for the middle linebacker position, Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon have been engaged in a battle for the starting spot throughout training camp. As it stands now, Elsdon might have a slight edge over King due to his experience with the program.

“Elsdon is a little bit ahead,” Franklin said at his Wednesday press conference. “Kobe’s still figuring that all out. You got to remember he’s a redshirt freshman and [the mike] is basically the quarterback of the defense. He’s going to play in game one. There’s still time between now and the first game before we actually name the starters.”

Elsdon is entering his third year with the program after totaling 10 tackles in five games last season. It’s still a very close battle, though, and King is not far behind him. Playing in four games as a true freshman last season, King could be poised to take the job over should he take advantage of the playing time that he’ll surely get.

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About the Author

Frankie Marzano

Frankie is a senior accounting and economics major from Long Island, NY. You can probably recognize him as the typical Italian-American with slicked back black hair. He is an avid fan of the New York Rangers and Mets, along with every Penn State Athletics team. Follow him on Twitter @frankiemarzano for obnoxious amounts of Rangers and Penn State content or email him at [email protected]

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