Penn State football’s talent-rich defense is set to be one of the best in the country

8-10 minutes 8/3/2023
We’ve already examined every position and the Penn State offense and now it’s time to close things out by discussing the Nittany Lion defense. Let’s take a look at what could be the best unit in the country on that side of the ball.
Pass defense
There’s no reason Penn State shouldn’t have the best pass defense in the country. Most teams succeed because they have excellent secondary play that allows their pass rush time to get to the quarterback, or the elite pass rush to give a passer limited time to dissect the defense.
The Nittany Lions have both. Kalen King might be the best cornerback in the country and Johnny Dixon would be a good top cornerback on most teams. They can both excel in coverage and make plays on the ball to force turnovers. Nickel cornerback Daequan Hardy should take a step forward after a relatively down 2022 season. He’s undersized but feisty and puts the effort in to compete with bigger running backs and tight ends in coverage. Safety is less certain, but Zakee Wheatley is a turnover machine who has a nose for the ball not unlike former PSU safety Ji’Ayir Brown. Keaton Ellis is a solid safety who head coach James Franklin has stepped up his playmaking in the offseason. If he can take a step forward, the secondary could go from a group with no discernible weakness to one that is strong across the board.
Those players pair nicely with a menacing pass rush that is going to give every opponent trouble. Chop Robinson is projected to be a first round pick for a reason. He’s an elite edge rusher with the kind of first step you don’t see often, allowing him to blow by offensive tackles. He and Adisa Isaac are both high-end athletes who can terrorize opposing linemen, and players like Hakeem Beamon and Zane Durant should provide an interior rush that can make it difficult to double team anyone. That’s not even accounting for sophomore Dani Dennis-Sutton, who could start for most teams in the country, coming off the bench at defensive end. When defensive coordinator Manny Diaz decides to dial up a blitz, he has two elite linebackers in Curtis Jacobs and Abdul Carter who can burst through a gap and close on a quarterback for they have a chance to react.
There’s no more important aspect of defense than passing defense because of how pass-heavy college football has become. Penn State is well equipped to deal with even the most dynamic passing offenses in college football. Giving it upside to not just make the College Football Playoff, but to make some noise once it gets there.
Run defense
If there’s a question mark with this defense, it’s here. The Nittany Lions aren’t massive up the middle of their defense, but what they lack in size they make up for in ball pursuit. Carter has a knack for tracking down ball carriers and making plays, and Jacobs has the athleticism to make things happen when he has the space. Those two, along with inside linebackers Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon, should form a formidable second level that could do real damage if they get help from the front four.
That’s where some of the questions arise. Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard should be the team’s two best run defenders at defensive tackle, but neither is at the level PJ Mustipher was last season. They could get there, but Mustipher was a true space eater who opened things up in a big way for the linebackers to fill gaps and bring down running backs. That being said, the team’s defensive ends continue to improve against the run and have the strength to be a real asset if they continue on that trajectory.
Ellis should be helpful dropping down into the box, but Jaylen Reed should be the team’s best run defender at safety. He’s a big hitter who plays with the kind of physicality that should allow him to play closer to the line of scrimmage if necessary. The team’s cornerbacks are willing to help in the running game, which is half the battle with players on the outside. Hardy does a good job of crashing down from the slot and making plays when he sees an opening, while the other corners have good size and can contribute if necessary.
Frankly, this is going to come down to how the team’s defensive tackles can occupy space or even make their own plays. The Penn State run defense was torn apart by Michigan last year, and that was one of the reasons the Nittany Lions fell short of the playoff. With more sound play from the linebacker and more contributions from the defensive front, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue in 2023.
There’s little reason to believe this won’t be a top 10 unit in the country at worst. Yes, that’s a high bar and there is always a chance that injuries derail a season, but this defense is loaded with talent and it’s deep. Last season’s defense finished 12th in ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency, and should be even higher despite losing some high end talent like former corner Joey Porter Jr.
The pass defense is going to be the most important aspect, especially against most other high level teams and this might be the best group in the conference in that regard, even with an elite Iowa defense ready to make noise again. Diaz is a high-end coordinator with high-end talent and that’s a combination that will set a high standard for this season. The run defense could be an issue at times, but it seems more likely that the Michigan game from last year doesn’t prove to be indicative of what this year’s defense does.
The Nittany Lions should finish in the top five in SP+ by the end of the season and there’s a decent chance it ends up being top three when it’s all said and done.

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