Post Spring Practice: Will Penn State Football be Ranked?

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (Mandatory Credit: Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports)
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (Mandatory Credit: Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Penn State Football
Kalen King #4 of the Penn State Nittany Lions(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

The Argument For (Part 2)

Penn State’s defense was elite in 2021, but the unit will enter 2022 with seven new starters and a new coordinator.

There are plenty of impact players returning on defense though. Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher will be back after missing the second half of 2021 with an injury. Talented linebacker Curtis Jacobs is back for his junior season, cornerbacks Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King also return. The most crucial returning starter may be safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who led the team with six interceptions last year.

The Nittany Lions look stronger at defensive end, despite losing Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa to the NFL. Adisa Isaac is returning from injury, Demeioun Robinson is transferring in from Maryland and 5-star freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton will arrive next month. Additionally, Smith Vilbert had a three-sack performance in the Outback Bowl. Rounding out the group are veteran run-stopper Nick Tarburton, third-year player Amin Vanover and second-year players Rodney McGraw and Davon Townley. There are plenty of options to go to.

While there may be questions at the other two linebacker positions, Jacobs has the WILL position locked up. Jacobs, who is entering his third season in 2022, recorded 61 tackles with 7.5 for loss and three sacks in 2021. The move inside the box will only get him involved in more plays and give him more opportunities to impact the game.

Despite losing one of the best safeties in the country in Jaquan Brisker to the NFL, Penn State’s secondary is still one of the best in the Big Ten.

As mentioned, Brown returns at the other safety spot. The other spot is not yet filled, but the candidates are Keaton Ellis, Jaylen Reed and Zakee Wheatley. Penn State really cannot go wrong with any of these guys.

Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields is off to the NFL as well, but the talent at corner is still immense. Porter has shown up in some first-round mock drafts for 2023, while King enters his second season, and first as a full-time starter. Daquan Hardy, who has been excellent at the Star position, returns as well. Johnny Dixon is also slated for an increased role as the primary backup to the two starters.

Penn State’s secondary is great, but it will be on new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to get the most out of the front seven and put pressure on quarterbacks and keep the heat off the secondary.

One position that there is no concern about is defensive tackle. The group’s leader, Mustipher, is back, but he’s not the only key contributor from this group. D’Von Ellies and Coziah Izzard received some valuable experience last season, while Hakeem Beamon is slated to return after missing last season. There’s then Zane Durant, the true freshman who was the talk of winter workouts and spring camp. It’s not often that freshman play right away on the line, but Durant looks like he will.

It’s not going to be easy to run against these defensive tackles and it won’t be easy to throw on this secondary. If the pass rush improves, this defense could be just as good as last season.