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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2022 Starting Lineup: Secondary

Behind last season’s mature tandem of Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields in the secondary, Penn State football’s starting defensive backs were able to snag the third-most interceptions among all Big Ten squads with 14.

While the Nittany Lions will need to thrust several new contributors into the secondary’s fold without Brisker and Castro-Fields’ services this time around, several returning assets are prepped to build off solid 2021 campaigns.

During his second season with the Nittany Lions, safety Ji’Ayir Brown erupted for 73 tackles and six interceptions, resulting in a postseason third-team All-Big Ten nod. Similarly, rising fourth-year product Joey Porter Jr. recently warranted preseason All-American honors courtesy of Phil Steele on the heels of his 50-tackle output in 2021.

Now, let’s take a complete look at the Nittany Lions’ projected starting lineup across the cornerback and safety rooms ahead of the squad’s opening matchup at Purdue.

Cornerback

  • Starters: Joey Porter Jr., Kalen King, and Daequan Hardy
  • Reserves: Johnny Dixon, Marquis Wilson

Position coach Terry Smith might just have his most talented cornerback core ever entering his ninth year in Happy Valley with a stable of veterans at his disposal on the outside. While the clear-cut No. 1 cover option will likely be Porter Jr., sophomore Kalen King is the most likely candidate to fill the reliable shoes of Castro-Fields on the opposite side, while Daequan Hardy will presumably command the slot corner spot.

This offseason, Porter was slotted as a potential first-round NFL Draft talent by Todd McShay, who currently ranks the Pittsburgh native as the No. 25 overall prospect on his initial big board. Aside from finishing eighth amongst all Nittany Lions in total tackles during his last go-around, Porter’s rare combination of length and speed helped him deflect four passes and grab one interception.

As for Hardy, the once lowly rated three-star product proved his worth in 2021 by defending six passes, while nabbing two additional interceptions while playing frequently in the nickel package. Hardy, who also hails from the Steel City, was named a Pro Football Focus honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree.

Besides the two Pittsburgh products, Kalen King should vie for the most playing time in Franklin and Smith’s secondary assembly. Last season, King was named a preseason freshman All-American selection by 247Sports and ultimately accounted for 21 total hits and five passes defended in second-string minutes in his initial campaign.

Johnny Dixon should give the Nittany Lions his fair share of solid run in relief of his starting counterparts. Last season, the South Carolina transfer appeared in 12 matchups but made just 10 total stops on the year. With the Gamecocks, however, the Florida native recorded 37 total hits in three seasons in SEC country.

While the four assets above will likely collect the majority of snaps in 2022, Marquis Wilson could potentially make a name for himself after moving back to the cornerback position following a short segment at wide receiver.

The Connecticut native’s rarified ball skills make him a candidate to see increased action on pass-heavy downs. Additionally, Wilson will likely play a role in special teams as a potential starter at punt returner.

Safety

  • Starters: Ji’Ayir Brown, Keaton Ellis
  • Reserves: Zakee Wheatley, Jaylen Reed, Mehki Flowers, Cristian Driver

When Ji’Ayir Brown announced his return to Franklin’s program in December, position coach Anthony Poindexter found solace knowing the NCAA’s latest interceptions leader would be able to mentor his younger supporting cast for one additional season. 

Brown, who is entering his fifth year at the collegiate ranks, was recently tagged as a third-team preseason All-American by Athlon Sports after leading the NCAA in individual interceptions in 2021. 

While the Nittany Lions know what they’re getting with Brown and his 19 games of experience in the blue and white, the majority of his teammates at safety are entering unfamiliar territory. 

In 2019, State College native Keaton Ellis amassed 14 tackles in nine contests at cornerback during his true freshman showing, but since then, his production has yet to hit another gear. 

Between a series of nagging injuries and a position change to safety, Ellis has logged just 13 games of action across his last two campaigns in Happy Valley. However, after incurring a career-high 18 stops in 2021, the local product appears to be the front runner to fill in for Brisker, who earned All-American honors at the position last season. 

Aside from the pair of projected starters, second-year commodity Zakee Wheatley recently followed the footsteps of Ellis by switching from cornerback to safety after his first year on campus. 

Since then, Wheatley was named the team’s “Takeaway King” in the spring for grabbing the most interceptions among all defensive players. 

Moreover, despite putting up only six tackles and a lone quarterback hurry in 2021, fellow second-year piece Jaylen Reed should rotate in and out if Brown needs relief this fall. 

Reed’s redshirt was burnt last season by appearing in eight matchups, and for the most part, the true freshman lived up to his previously earned four-star label in high school. With the addition of a few other raw true freshmen consisting of Mehki Flowers and Cristian Driver, the Nittany Lion’s safety group appears to be in good hands prior to the onset of the 2022 season. 

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. 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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