After a second consecutive 11-win season, Penn State enters 2018 needing to replace several key playmakers. Thanks to sustained recruiting success, however, coach James Franklin’s task — filling voids left by departed seniors and NFL-bound junior running back Saquon Barkley — is not an impossible one.
Franklin and his staff have signed a top-20 recruiting class in each of the past four cycles, rising to new heights in 2018 with the nation’s fifth-ranked class in the 247Sports composite. Franklin built a foundation with his initial class (2014), and his staff steadily has developed the pieces for enhanced depth.
There is a reason a few Power 5 programs annually compete for championships. They reload rather than rebuild with an abundance of talented prospects who can provide an impact when called upon.
The correlation is evident. Urban Meyer has signed six top-2 classes since 2006, claiming recruiting three national titles along the way. Nick Saban signed seven straight No. 1 classes from 2011-17, resulting in four national championships.
Penn State faces another developmental test in 2018, tasked with replacing program record-setters such as Barkley, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki, and leaders including linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen.
Still a month away from the start of spring camp, depth-chart predictions are speculative, based on what we learned last season and the anticipated progression of young players. Penn State played only three freshmen last season, so the Nittany Lions will enter next season with 41 scholarship athletes who’ve yet to compete in a college game.
One week after National Signing Day, Land of 10 detailed a projected depth chart on offense. Now here’s a breakdown of how things may look throughout the defensive lineup.
*Not listed due to injury recovery: Ellison Jordan (redshirt sophomore)
Starters: Kevin Givens (redshirt junior), Robert Windsor (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Antonio Shelton (redshirt sophomore), Fred Hansard (redshirt freshman)
Others to know: PJ Mustipher (freshman) Damion Barber (redshirt freshman), Corey Bolds (redshirt freshman)
Penn State says goodbye to steady senior defensive tackles Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren, both of whom started in 2017. But Nittany Lions defensive line coach Sean Spencer isn’t lacking for experience at the top of his depth chart.
Givens and Windsor appeared in every game last season, with Givens logging five starts. They combined for 42 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in 2017, and can certainly earn expanded snaps moving ahead.
Shelton and Jordan made their collegiate debuts last fall, though it remains to be seen when the latter will be back at 100-percent health. Beyond them, this group is filled with young up-and-comers, including 2017 signees Hansard, Bolds and Barber, who moved from defensive end on the Nittany Lions’ newest roster.
Mustipher is a top-5 prospect at the position among 2018 recruits, and is presently in pursuit of a second straight Maryland state wrestling championship. Though he won’t arrive on campus until June, his size (6-foot-5, 290 pounds) and athletic pedigree make him a candidate to contribute as a freshman.
*Not listed due to injury recovery: Torrence Brown (redshirt senior)
Starters: Shareef Miller (redshirt junior), Ryan Buchholz (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Shaka Toney (redshirt sophomore), Shane Simmons (redshirt sophomore)
Others to know: Yetur Gross-Matos (sophomore), Daniel Joseph (redshirt sophomore), Jayson Oweh (freshman)
Miller delivered an MVP performance in the 2017 spring game and didn’t let his foot off the gas pedal heading into his third college campaign. He led the Nittany Lions with 11 tackles for loss and 5 sacks en route to all-conference honors.
Buchholz stepped up following the early-season loss of Brown and should be counted on as a key part of this rotation. Expect a highly competitive battle for reps here, as Toney (6.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) and Simmons (4.5 tackles for loss) both showed flashes of potential stardom as redshirt freshmen.
Gross-Matos was one of those three freshman who saw action in 2017, and the only lineman in that trio. A strong offseason could send him surging up this depth chart. Joseph, one of three Canadian transplants on Penn State’s defense, is also a factor. Incoming freshman Oweh is among the most high-ceiling defensive linemen you’ll find in college football, but his progression may require some patience.
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) December 1, 2017
Starters: Koa Farmer (redshirt senior), Cam Brown (junior), Micah Parsons (freshman)
Next men up: Ellis Brooks (redshirt freshman), Jarvis Miller (redshirt junior), Jake Cooper (senior)
Others to know: Jan Johnson (redshirt junior), Brelin Faison-Walden (redshirt freshman), Brailyn Franklin (redshirt freshman), Jesse Luketa (freshman)
There are plenty of questions about where Penn State is headed at linebacker following the departure of Cabinda, a captain, and starter Manny Bowen. Farmer is the leading tackler among all Nittany Lions returners from last season (48), and he’ll be counted on to provide leadership for a unit filled with young, emerging talent.
Parsons continues to be the most-discussed member of Penn State’s 2018 recruiting class. He is the highest-rated Nittany Lions signee (No. 5 overall nationally) since 2005, and Franklin stated upon his Dec. 20 signing that Parsons will compete for starting duties at middle linebacker.
The 6-3, 240-pound prospect was named U.S. Army All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year as a senior at Harrisburg (Pa.) High School. It’s not rash to think his package of physical attributes and highly motivated playing style will vault him into an immediate role.
Fellow newcomer Luketa displays innate leadership qualities and can compete in various spots on the field, while rising redshirt freshmen Brooks, Franklin and Faison-Walden are attempting to make leaps of their own. Brooks may be the best bet to do so.
Brown rounds out our early projected trio of starters here. That’s a nod to his experience within the program and compelling physical stature (6-5, 222 pounds). He’s appeared in 22 games through two seasons, including two starts in 2016.
Starters: Amani Oruwariye (redshirt senior), John Reid (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Tariq Castro-Fields (sophomore), Zech McPhearson (redshirt sophomore)
Others to know: Jabari Butler (redshirt junior), Donovan Johnson (redshirt freshman), Trent Gordon (freshman)
A torn left ACL dashed expectations for a potential all-conference 2017 season for Reid, but he’s now back in action in winter workouts. Reid led the team in pass breakups (7) as a sophomore and remained a defensive leader last season even while sidelined.
Oruwariye may have been Penn State’s most underrated contributor in a 2017 secondary that will have four players at the NFL combine. He finished first on the team in interceptions (4) and third in pass breakups (8).
Castro-Fields was counted on to contribute as a freshman and didn’t disappoint. He should have the edge in a pursuit for No. 3 cornerback duties, though McPhearson, Butler and Johnson create a challenge.
Gordon has drawn positive reviews through his first month-and-a-half on campus. He’ll be joined by fellow freshman cornerback Jordan Miner this summer.
Starters: Nick Scott (redshirt senior), Ayron Monroe (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Garrett Taylor (redshirt junior), Lamont Wade (sophomore)
Others to know: Jonathan Sutherland (redshirt freshman), John Petrishen (redshirt junior), Isaiah Humphries (freshman)
Along with linebacker, safety likely poses the most questions for Penn State fans. The tandem of Allen and Troy Apke excelled during much of the 2017 campaign, but those seniors are now focused on their NFL chances.
Scott, a 2017 team captain, has appeared in 39 games since 2015. Among Penn State returnees, he collected the third-most tackles (33) last season.
Monroe has been active on special teams and in a reserve role at safety the last two seasons. If he is able to handle an expanded workload this offseason, Monroe is our initial pick to start the season opener.
Taylor and Petrishen are fourth-year members of the program attempting to break out in 2018. The decision to move Wade — Penn State’s top-ranked 2017 signee — from cornerback to safety warranted plenty of attention, and he’ll presumably be right in the mix to earn starting reps.
Sutherland, a physical enforcer, received rave reviews from defensive leaders such as Allen during his redshirt campaign. Humphries, an early enrolled 2018 signee, is the son of former Penn State defensive back Leonard Humphries.
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