Penn State may have identified King Mack's replacement in the transfer portal

On the final day of the transfer portal spring window, former four-star safety King Mack entered his name and could be headed to Alabama. Now, it appears that James Franklin has honed in on a possible replacement, one he's been in contact with before.
Aggies defensive back Jacoby Mathews (2)
Aggies defensive back Jacoby Mathews (2) / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The spring transfer portal window came to a close on May 1, but it took until May 2, for reporters to learn that Penn State’s top defensive recruit from the 2023 high school class, King Mack was leaving Happy Valley after just one season. The four-star freshman from Florida played just 70 defensive snaps in his Penn State career and rather than spend another season behind Jaylen Reed on the depth chart, Mack decided to head to the portal in search of playing time, which he may have found at Alabama of all places. 

Penn State has enough talent to survive the departure, with Reed entrenched as the starter at free safety and primary nickel corner, but it is a blow to the defense’s depth in the secondary. Given his creative usage of safeties during his tenure as the head coach at Indiana, first-year defensive coordinator Tom Allen was likely in James Franklin’s ear about targeting a King Mack replacement this spring. 

Allen and Franklin appear to have honed in on the top safety available on the market, Jacoby Mathews, whom Franklin once recruited as a four-star high schooler in the 2022 class. Mathews entered the portal back on April 16, leaving Texas A&M after two seasons, but on May 2, Hayes Fawcett of reported that Mathews had been contacted by 12 teams, including the Nittany Lions. 

Over his two seasons of college football, Mathews played 763 defensive snaps for the Aggies and recorded 67 total tackles with one interception and seven pass breakups. His versatility will appeal to Allen, but it’s more likely his coverage ability that has drawn his eye. 

Last year, Mathews played 206 snaps at free safety, 169 snaps in the slot, and 125 in the box. Both Jaylen Reed and Kevin Winston Jr. had similar usage at Penn State last season, with Winston playing slightly more box snaps than Reed and Reed slightly more nickel snaps than Winston. Both played nearly 300 snaps at free safety. Manny Diaz moved his two safeties around constantly and both had more success around the line of scrimmage than Mathews, who only totaled 35 total tackles with 10 missed tackles. 

However, Mathews was elite in coverage, surrendering just 10 receptions across 276 coverage snaps with four pass breakups and one interception while being targeted 21 times. He’d likely be the best ball-hawking-free safety on Penn State’s or any team's roster if the team can land a commitment from him. Even with two returning starters at safety, that’d be a crucial addition for a unit that has aspirations of being the top defense in the country under Allen in 2024. 

Penn State lost all three of its starting corners from last season to the NFL and while the team added A.J. Harris and Jalen Kimber in the offseason to supplement rising junior Cam Miller, all three are outside corners. So, with Mathews primarily over the top, Reed and Winston could lean into their strengths around the line of scrimmage, both in the box and over the slot. Mathews could be the key to unlocking a potentially elite secondary, but the Nittany Lions have quite a bit of competition for his services. 

It’s been a while since Franklin made a splash in the transfer portal, his last addition came during the winter portal window. That lack of activity makes a potential signing unlikely, but not impossible. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll see how much urgency the loss of King Mack creates in Happy Valley and the team’s reaction will reveal just how big of a loss he was.

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