Previewing Penn State Football’s Early Season Defensive Starters

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 10: Marcus Allen /

Penn State football returns a number of experienced players on both sides of the ball. Who will be the Nittany Lions defensive starters come September 2nd?

When the Penn State football defense last took the field, they were being shredded by USC Quarterback Sam Darnold to the tune of 52 points.  Second year defensive coordinator Brent Pry never lost confidence in his squad that day and he’s not about to start now.  

Pry must replace five of the eleven starters from last year’s squad (Video courtesy of Big Ten Network) including John Reid – Reid is out indefinitely and may miss all season after sustaining a knee injury during spring practice.  He remains optimistic the 2017 Nittany Lions defense can improve upon last season’s squad.

Penn State’s “Biggest losses are starting ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, playmaking linebacker Brandon Bell, and safety Malik Golden” according to PennLive’s Bob Flounders.  

At last Wednesday’s media session (video courtesy of GoPSUtv) following the Lions fall workout, head coach James Franklin specifically called out two defensive players for their play – defensive back Christian Campbell and safety Troy Apke.  Of the pair, Franklin made the following remarks, “Defensively, I would say that Christian Campbell has had a really, really good camp,” Franklin continued. “Excited about him and another guy who I think has made some really good strides is [Troy] Apke. He’s a guy that I think is going to have a tremendous year for us.”

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In an earlier post, I gave you what I thought would be Penn State’s offensive starters when they face Akron on September 2nd.  Today we focus on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line:

  • Torrence Brown (DE)

  • Curtis Cothran (DT)

  • Parker Cothren (DT)

  • Shareef Miller (DE)

Narrative:  Tackles Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren will anchor the interior of position coach Sean Spencer’s “Wild Dogs” defensive line. The redshirt seniors combined to start 21 games for the Lions last season.  Their game experience and athleticism will be counted upon to help anchor a defense that allowed over 150 rushing yards per game last year.

On the edges Penn State will be breaking in two new starters.  Redshirt junior Torrence Brown is no stranger to defensive end.  The Tuscaloosa, AL native played in all 14 contests last year recording 33 tackles and recovering a fumble for a touchdown at Indiana.

The other defensive bookend to Cothran and Cothren will be redshirt sophomore Shareef Miller.  The Philadelphia, PA native played in all 14 games last year.  In fact, in his first contest against Kent State, Miller recorded two sacks.

Both Miller and Brown possess size, strength, and speed which will be key qualities coach Spencer relies upon to contain opposing quarterbacks and running backs.


  • Manny Bowen (LB)

  • Jason Cabinda (LB)

  • Koa Farmer (LB)

Narrative:  Penn State has long been known as ‘Linebacker U’ and for good reason.  To be a linebacker in defensive coordinator Brent Pry’s 4-3 system, you need versatile, fast, and athletic players, exactly what the Nittany Lions have this year.  

Jason Cabinda will continue to man the MIKE linebacker position.  In 2016 the true senior was a stalwart for the Lions after suffering an arm injury early in the season.  His first game back from injury, against Ohio State, he made or assisted in 13 tackles.  He finished the season with 81 tackles, good for third on the Lions.  This season he will again be counted on to be the heart-and-soul of the Lions’ linebackers.

Flanking Jason Cabinda at the SAM linebacker spot will be Koa Farmer.  Farmer, a redshirt junior, has finally settled into a linebacker spot after bouncing between a safety and a linebacker.  In fact, “Koa Farmer changed positions so many times he wasn’t sure some days whether he was a safety or a linebacker,” according to the Reading Eagle’s Rich Scarcella.  Now firmly entrenched as a linebacker, Farmer will look to increase his 29 tackles from a season ago.

True junior Manny Bowen looks to hold down the WILL linebacker position.  The Barnegat, NJ native ranked fifth on the team in total tackles in 2016 with 68.  After being suspended for the Rose Bowl, Bowen seems poised to put the past behind him and focus on what in front of him.  He’d better be ready because reserves Jake Cooper and Cameron Brown are breathing down his neck for playing time.  Bowen is the odds-on favorite for the position, but the competition in practice has been fierce.


  • Christian Campbell (CB)

  • Marcus Allen (FS)

  • Troy Apke (SS)

  • Grant Haley (CB)

Narrative:  Senior Christian Campbell has been elevated to boundary cornerback starter (video courtesy of GoPSUtv) due to John Reid’s knee injury.

Campbell made 31 tackles and corralled one interception.  The Lions will rely on his experience with Reid out indefinitely. If Campbell does falter, true freshman Lamont Wade or redshirt junior Amani Oruwariye is waiting to take his spot.

The field cornerback starting position will be held down by senior Grant Haley.  His infamous scoop-and-score last year off the blocked field goal against Ohio State was the stuff of legend, but Haley was more than just that signature play.  Last season Haley ranked eighth on the squad recording 39 tackles and was a vital cog in the Lions secondary.  Expectation for Haley remain high this season.

Marcus Allen returned for his senior season after many experts believed he would be headed for the NFL draft.  No doubt he would have been a high draft choice, but the Lions are glad to have retained his services.  Allen was “Mr. Everything” for the Lions in 2016.  Aside from his game-changing field goal block against Ohio State, he led the team in solo tackles (57), assisted tackles (53) and total tackles (110).  

Suffice it to say, if a play was made defensively, Allen probably had a hand in making it.  This season looks to be more of the same.  His leadership skills will be vital to a Penn State secondary that recorded a mere six interceptions last year.

Perhaps one of the fiercest position battles of fall camp has been for the safety position opposite Marcus Allen.  Based upon coach Franklin’s comments on Wednesday and Troy Apke having more live game experience than Ayron Monroe, look for Apke to be the final piece of the Nittany Lions secondary.  Monroe, a redshirt sophomore, will certainly see the field, but at least for game one Apke gets the starting nod.  Call it a gut reaction.