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How Good Is The Nittany Lions Defense?

Penn State poised to have its best defense under Franklin and best in a generation.

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz enters his second season coordinating the Nittany Lions defense.


The improvements Diaz implemented and engineered in year one were instrumental to the Nittany Lions winning 11 games and the Rose Bowl.


Diaz brought to Penn State various “prowler packages” and exotic blitzes that saw the Nittany Lions sack total increase from 17 in 2021 to 43 in 2022. The Nittany Lions remained steady in the yards per play allowed (4.7 in 2021 to 4.6 in 2022), but the biggest improvements came in total defense allowing less than 30 yards per game (353 in 2021 to 323.5 in 2022) and third down conversions allowed (36.4% in 2021 to 33.2% in 2022).


In 2022, the Nittany Lions defense kept opponents under 20 points in nine games compared to six in 2021.


Penn State surrendered 61 total points in its final five contests. The Nittany Lions shut out rival Maryland, led by quarterback Taulia Tagovalioa and wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, averaged 34 points per game.

In the Rose Bowl, Utah was the only opponent who scored more than 20 points, with the Nittany Lions allowing 21 to the Pac-12 Champion.

Diaz began to assess his defense going into the 2023 season, "So here’s our blessing and our curse, at every position, we have a lot of guys who have played, so we know that they know they can go into a high-level Big Ten game and function and play well. The question is, who’s going to be the ace? Because at almost every position we lost the ace: Ji'Ayir Brown, Joey Porter, Jr., Sutherland at linebacker, Nick Tarburton and PJ Mustipher [on the defensive line]. We really lost some key guys. So who’s going to step up from a leadership standpoint, and who knows that my level of consistency has to be there week in and week out? That’s really what happens when you’re the A player, when you've got to bring it every down, every rep. That to me is the difference."


At all three levels on defense, the Nittany Lions return aces and those aces are supported by elite talent that should help make up for the lost talent to the NFL.

Nittany Lions Defensive Line:

Projected Starters

EDGE: Demeioun “Chop” Robinson

DT: Zane Durant

NG: D’Von Ellies Jr. EDGE: Adisa Isaac Jr. The defensive line will be led by EDGE rusher Demeioun “Chop” Robinson. Robinson was graded by Pro Football Focus with a 91.6 Overall Grade and 92.4 Pass Rush Grade which is tops amongst Power 5 EDGE Rushers and was sixth in the nation with 16 pressures.

Scouts marvel at his elite spin move and his overall pass rushing technique is considered Day 1 level. His physical make up is ideal for the EDGE position and has room in his build to add more muscle.


When Diaz referenced losing “aces,” one of the biggest losses was sixth-year senior PJ Mustipher at defensive tackle whose ability to command attention and attract double and triple teams will sorely be missed.


Sophomore Zane Durant is one of the more promising interior defensive lineman for the Nittany Lions. Durant has put on nearly 25 lbs of muscle since his freshman year and heading into summer sessions was just under 280 lbs.


Penn State head coach James Franklin commented about Durant being a legitimate breakout candidate in 2023, “I think Zane Duant is on a really good trajectory, I think you’ll see a big jump from his freshman year, [after] kind of getting some reps, and now being more of a guy with a significant role and has put really good weight on. When you look at him, he doesn’t necessarily look like a lot has been put on. But, he’s put on really good weight and is still lean and explosive and athletic. He kind of fits what we’re looking for.”


Rounding out the defensive line is Adisa Isaac Jr. opposite of “Chop” Robinson was selected All-Big Ten Third Team last season.

The player to keep an eye on is former five-star EDGE rusher Dani Dennis-Sutton who will be expected to replace Robinson in 2024 and how he reacts to key situations.


Nittany Lions Linebacker:

Willie: Abdul Carter

Mike: Kobe King

Sam: Curtis Jacobs


The superlatives for a unit that was young and inexperienced a season ago have been earned.


Sophomore Abdul Carter got the coveted No. 11 jersey - one that has been worn by Nittany Lion legends such as LaVar Arrington, NaVarro Bowman, and Micah Parsons.

Carter had a freshman season that many feel he will live up to those legendary players and Diaz complements his rare closing speed and bursts with the 1999 cinematic classic The Matrix. "He has great belief in his abilities when he’s out there," Diaz said. "Being able to hone those things and have an understanding of what’s going on around him, I call it the 'Matrix moment' when the game slows down and you see the 0s and 1s floating in space. That’s when you really have that moment when you begin to realize you don’t have to do things with a cape on. The game becomes slower and much more simple, which, for a guy with his short-area quickness, it will become even scarier."


Jacobs, the elder statesman, returns for another season of refinement. Jacobs has played at an All-Big Ten level in each season at Penn State and will benefit from another season in Diaz’s system.


The future is bright for the Nittany Lions, if there is potentially another Carter on the team is four-star linebacker Tony Rojas.


Rojas had a monster spring game for the Nittany Lions with nine total tackles that led the game as well as six solo tackles. He also broke up one pass and recorded half a tackle for a loss. Look for Diaz to rotate in Rojas in key situations and it will be interesting if Franklin wants to burn Rojas’s shirt or not.


Nittany Lions Defensive Backs

CB: Kalen King

CB: Johnny Dixon

SS: Jaylen Reed Jr. FS: Keaton Ellis


Penn State lost two key members of an elite secondary unit from last year in cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and safety Ji’Ayir Brown.

The bigger loss is Brown because of his unique skill set, Diaz implemented a “prowler package” that maximized the unique skill sets Brown had. Brown had 4.5 sacks and several quarterback hurries from the unit.


Diaz commented on missing Brown’s leadership skills, and indicated Brown commanded respect from the entire locker room.


Even with those losses, many college football analysts rate the Nittany Lions secondary as one of the elite units in the nation. National analyst Phil Steele rates the Nittany Lions secondary unit the top unit in the country.


The foundation of that high praise comes from cornerback Kalen King who is either seen as the top cornerback in the country or behind Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry.

King was fourth in the nation last season with 15 pass break ups, was graded 92.2 by Pro Football Focus in single coverage which led the nation, and had a 19.1 QBR when targeted last season.

"Kalen can catch it, so he can punish you," Diaz said of King’s play. "... When you throw it where No. 4 is, you may not get it back. That really makes offenses and quarterbacks have to think twice after going after him. He doesn't leave his guy open very often, and when you try it anyway, it may be a turnover. That gives you great value. We obviously play a little more man [coverage], and he fit in starting last spring and was one of the really key players during spring practice. Everyone talked about [Joey Porter, Jr.] for great reason, but Kalen King played at a level in my mind as good as any corner in the country a year ago."


Conclusion

In four decades covering and following the Nittany Lions, this might be the most talented group I have seen personally.


I don’t feel there has been a defensive group with so much high end talent on all three levels.


This defensive unit gives me two different feels from the 1999 group that consisted of Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington, Brandon Short, Bhawoh Jue, and David Macklin, and the 2005 squad that consisted of Tamba Hali, Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, and Alan Zemaitis. Great pieces on all three units. Where this team seems to potentially transcend those squads is the high caliber and unique skill sets that are blended at all three levels.


This team’s challenge is it has to avoid the lulls it has experienced personally last season being bludgeoned by Michigan for 418 yards rushing in a 45-17 rout and then what others have in the Franklin era having head scratcher games.


This is a national championship caliber defense and it has all the makings of not only being Franklin’s best but one of the best in history.

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