Much of the focus at Penn State this spring has been on the battle to replace departed quarterback Christian Hackenberg. At every media availability, Nittany Lion coach James Franklin is asked about the QB competition between redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley and redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens.
But a fair argument could be made that PSU has a much bigger hole to fill — literally and figuratively — on the other side of the ball. At defensive tackle, position coach Sean Spencer is tasked with replacing the production of three of his top four players from 2015 — early NFL entrant Austin Johnson, one-time first-team All-Big Ten pick Anthony Zettel and two-year backup Tarow Barney.
Adding to the uncertainty in the middle of the line is the fact that junior Parker Cothren, the most-seasoned returnee, is missing the spring with what has been described to us as an upper body injury.
If Penn State had to play a game tomorrow, the starting tackles would likely be redshirt sophomore Antoine White and redshirt freshman Kevin Givens. White played in 10 games last season, making eight tackles. Givens is a converted high school linebacker who redshirted last season while making the transition to end and eventually tackle.
Fortunately for PSU, the season does not start tomorrow. Spring practice wraps with Saturday’s Blue-White Game, and then the Nittany Lions have the rest of the spring and summer for: Cothren to get healthy; the young D-tackles to get bigger and strong; additional help to arrive from a key juco transfer.
In the meantime, here are the guys in the mix for playing time this spring:
Nicknamed “Salt” for his shake-and-bake moves, White has trimmed down to below 280 pounds this spring. He said he dropped 10 pounds of fat and intends to slowly build back up to about 290 by adding muscle. White is a natural three technique who is being forced to play some one this spring because of the lack of depth there. The return of the 302-pound Cothren and the arrival of 300-pound juco transfer Tyrell Chavis should allow the athletic White to focus on playing the three come preseason camp. We'll go ahead and project him as the starting three now.
By all accounts one of Penn State’s most pleasant surprises of the spring, Givens was a very late add to the Nittany Lions’ Class of 2015. Though he played linebacker in high school, PSU recruited him as a D-lineman. He began at end during his redshirt season but the more the staff saw of him, the more it thought he’d be a better fit at tackle. Givens is already one of the strongest players on the team. He has a low build that should become even more effective as he continues to add bulk (he is about 270 now and the staff would like him to be at 280-plus by preseason camp). He is definitely a three technique at this point. But we're not sure he'd big enough to be an every-down player just yet. Expect him to be a key backup next season. The last member of the Class of 2015 — and a late flip from Pitt — is looking like a serious steal for the Nittany Lions.
As if the Cothren/Cothran business were not confusing enough when they arrived in the same class (2013) and both played on the D-line, now Curtis Cothran has been moved from end to tackle to bolster the numbers there. At 6-5 and about 270, at first glance the redshirt junior Cothran looks very much like an end playing tackle. But Franklin has gone on record as saying one of the biggest concerns when moving Cothran — that he would play too high — has not been a problem. And he is strong for someone who is so rangy. The staff would like to get him up in the 280 range in time for preseason camp. If he is able to do that and maintain his 4.8 40 speed, the Lions could be looking at an interesting interior pass-rushing weapon from the three in obvious passing situations. For now, though, this is very much a work in progress.
A redshirt freshman one technique, Windsor has a very good chance to emerge as a primary backup next season. He has good frame (6-4, 284) and is athletic (sub-5.0 40). In terms of development, he looks a lot like a younger version of the now 300-pound Cothren, meaning you can expect him to methodically add more size and strength as the seasons go by. Like many redshirt freshmen, Windsor has to work on his overall focus. When you start thinking about Cothren, Chavis and Windsor at the one next season, suddenly depth at the position is not as scary as it seems to be this spring.
Though he has already bulked up to 300-plus pounds, the 6-foot-4 Carter is still making the adjustment from being a high school end. In fact, at the high school level, Carter also played linebacker, quarterback, tight end, receiver, punter and kicker — almost everywhere but D-tackle. His weight was in the neighborhood of 240 pounds as a high school senior and was up to 270 while redshirting at PSU last fall. We’re expecting 2016 to be a season where he continues to adjust to his new position and body type as a deep reserve.
Other New Faces
No, we did not forget about incoming freshmen Ellison Jordan and Antonio Shelton. But both young defensive tackles are going to need some time to fill out. In the meantime, Brenon Thrift is a 6-3, 270-pounder who played end at the juco level but (we believe) will eventually) land at tackle at PSU. Chavis seems more prepared to make an immediate impact on the program, though.