Penn State Football’s Youthful Front Seven Asserting Itself This Offseason
Penn State football’s defensive approach assumed a new identity after defensive line coach John Scott Jr. left for the NFL in March, laying the groundwork for Deion Barnes’ promotion to the vacated role.
At 30 years old, Barnes is not only the team’s newest positional coach, but the youngest as well. The promotion of the youthful Barnes strikes a strong parallel to what’s unfolding elsewhere among the Nittany Lions’ front seven.
The recent graduations of veteran defensive tackle PJ Mustipher and safety Ji’Ayir Brown necessitate the emergence of new locker room leaders. Similarly, the early departures of players such as cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and defensive end Nick Tarburton create similar holes in defensive production.
As a result, Barnes and head coach James Franklin alike are preparing a new class of defensive stars for immediate impact. The spoils of deep recruiting classes in 2022 and 2023 are already paying dividends in that particular hunt.
“We’re as good as we’ve been at defensive end,” Franklin said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got some guys that can rush the passer. I actually think we do at [defensive] tackle as well, but we still have some question marks.”
One such player that has thrived in the wide-open situation is sophomore defensive tackle Zane Durant — someone Franklin described as being on “a really good trajectory” to earning a significant role.
Following Penn State’s disastrous performance against Michigan’s bruising run game last season, Franklin expressed a need to get bigger (and better) in the trenches. Durant’s self evaluation heading into spring workouts mirrored his head coach’s remarks.
“I came into this year knowing I had to help in the run game,” Durant said. “Last year, I styled myself as a pass rusher, [coming in] on third down packages, but this year I’m trying to be more of a complete D-tackle.”
“[The Michigan loss] is a chip I’ve been wearing on my shoulder, since I was an undersized defensive tackle last year,” Durant continued. “So, everybody always thought I was undersized, but I don’t really take that into account.”
Perhaps addressing some of those concerns, Durant has bumped himself up to 282 pounds since January’s Rose Bowl appearance, where he previously clocked in at 275 pounds.
“I kept the workout regimen the same, [but] I’m eating more meals, taking more protein in, and drinking more water,” Durant said. “I really like sweets for real, so I had to put them down.”
Durant is not the only young defender to make notable leaps so quickly. Freshman linebacker and early enrollee Tony Rojas has made significant strides, adding a whopping 29 pounds since arriving in Happy Valley this winter.
“It’s good weight. I don’t know how that’s necessarily possible,” Franklin quipped. “Every time I go into the nutrition bar, he’s sitting there eating. After practice, he’s getting an extra pump in.”
Rojas has already garnered rave reviews from both coaches and players. For one, cornerback Kalen King said the young linebacker is eclipsing speeds of 20 miles per hour.
Despite the fans’ and media’s excitement, Penn State is taking Rojas’ speedy acclimation in stride — a fact that could be interpreted as an optimistic sign for the future.
“[Rojas] ain’t rare for me because I seen Abdul Carter when I came in,” Durant said, drawing laughter.
By earning comparisons to Carter, who broke onto the scene during his own true freshman campaign last season, Rojas has placed himself in good company.
With other returning faces such as Chop Robinson and Dani Dennis-Sutton, as well as newcomers like Ta’Mere Robinson and Kaveion Keys, the new-look Nittany Lions may be poised to not only weather their storm of high-profile departures but potentially end up better off as a result.
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