Top Three Reasons To Be Excited (& Concerned) About Penn State's Defense

One area is finally healthy. One area loses some major talent. One area is very deep and versatile. We focus in on the reasons to be optimistic and worried.

Penn State’s preseason camp may not be scheduled to start until the first week of August. But for die-hard Nittany Lion fans, it is never too early to start breaking things down in preparation for the season.

So in the coming weeks we’ll be offering a variety of unique takes on James Franklin’s squad. Be sure to get in on the conversation on our premium forum.

In this segment, we talk about the top three reasons to be excited (and concerned) about the PSU defense.

REASONS TO BE EXCITED

3. Still Loaded At D-End

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Lombardi Award winner Carl Nassib may be off to the NFL, but D-line coach Sean Spencer still has some serious talent at end. Garrett Sickels (above) had a strong 2015 season and veteran Evan Schwan finally started to come into his own during the spring. Both are 4.7 40 types. Redshirt sophomore Torrence Brown has a huge upside, and redshirt freshmen Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz bring speed and size, respectively. Incoming freshman Shane Simmons has a chance to make an immediate impact, too. It says something about the depth PSU has here that the staff felt comfortable sending 2015 contributor Curtis Cothran inside to DT.

2. Versatility In The Secondary

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The Nittany Lions may not have a superstar in the secondary. But thanks to solid recruiting there the last few years, they have outstanding versatility, which will be key as defensive coordinator Brent Pry can move easily from base to nickel (star) to dime. Starting corners Grant Haley and John Reid (above) are both athletic and tough, but undersized. That’s not a serious issue, though, as their backups — Amani Oruwariye and Christian Campbell — are both 6-1. There is more quality depth at safety than we’ve seen in years. 

1. (Finally) Healthy Linebackers

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If you are a Penn State fan, find a piece of wood and start knocking on it right now. Because when preseason camp begins, the Nittany Lions should have a healthy, veteran starting linebacker corps for the first time since the 2015 season opener. Junior MLB Jason Cabinda has emerged as the steady, dependable leader of the group. Nyeem Wartman-White blew out an ACL in Week One last fall. But after being held out of contact in the spring as a precautionary measure, Wartman-White is expected to be full go come August. OLB Brandon Bell (above) was held out of contact in the spring due to an undisclosed injury. He, too, is expected to be fine for camp. If all three starters stay healthy — remember what we said about knocking on wood — this has a chance to be PSU’s best starting LB group since Mike Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson in 2012. Now for the rest of the story…

REASONS TO BE CONCERNED

3. Injury Prone Linebackers

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As talented as the starting ’backers may be, two have proven to be injury prone. Wartman-White missed 12 games last season with the torn ACL, 10 games in 2012 with a separate knee injury and one in 2014 with an undisclosed injury. Bell missed two games in 2014 and two more in 2015 with injuries, and seemed to be playing hurt at times last season. This is of particular concern because…

2. Lack Of Depth At LB

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Jake Cooper (above) and Manny Bowen were both forced into action last season due to injuries. They combined for 32 tackles and one start — which Cooper made in place of an injured Troy Reeder in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Cooper and Bowen both have legitimate upsides, but it would be tough for either to have to serve as an every-down player this year. With Reeder having transferred to Delaware, you are looking at exactly five LBs — Bell, Cabinda, Wartman-White, Cooper and Bowen — who have the skills and athleticism to function effectively in an FBS defense. We love senior leader Von Walker, but history has shown us he’s more suited to tearing things up on special teams than in the base defense. Meanwhile, true freshmen Cameron Brown and Shaka Toney are both long, skinny types who figure to need plenty of time in the weight room before making an impact.

1. Turnover At Defensive Tackle

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Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are both off to the NFL. Tarow Barney is trying to earn a free-agent spot in the league. With two starters and three of the top four players at defensive tackle gone, this is a huge area of concern for the Lions. Making matters worse, the most experienced returnee — big Parker Cothren — missed most of spring ball with what was reportedly a pectoral injury. That left redshirt sophomore Antoine "Salt" White (above) and undersized (though impressive) redshirt freshman Kevin Givens as the starters in the spring. It says something about the lack of depth PSU has here that the staff felt it had to send the former DE Cothran (not to be confused with Cothren) inside to DT. Juco transfer Tyrell Chavis should be a big help here and Robert Windsor has plenty of raw talent. But even if Cothren makes a full recovery in time for camp, significant questions remain here.

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