A very good all-around unit last season, Penn State's defense gave up the second fewest points in the Big Ten. The unit was tough against the run and pass. Do not be fooled by the team's middle-of-the-pack finish in passing yards allowed: the Nittany Lions sacked opposing quarterbacks 35 times and picked off 20 passes.
Though Penn State returns six starters, the Nittany Lions defense is missing even more dynamism from 2002 than the team's offense. Gone is Michael Haynes and his 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss, and a fellow first round draft pick, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy (87 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 16 TFL). Also on their way to the NFL are defensive tackle Anthony Adams (67-2-13), free safety Shawn Mayer (144-1-5.5, four interceptions), who led the Big Ten in tackles, and cornerback Bryan Scott (77, four interceptions, 10 pass break ups).
Key 2002 Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 17.5 (11)
Rushing yards allowed: 114.8 (21)
Yards per carry: 3.11
Passing yards allowed: 215.31 (58)
Yards per pass: 6.17
Total defense, yards allowed: 330.08 (27)
Yards per play: 4.60
Turnovers forced: 31—11 fumbles recovered, 20 INT
Sacks: 35 for 254 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
Quick, who was Penn State's "other" defensive line starter last year? It was junior John Bronson, who contributed a highly respectable, though completely overshadowed, 41 tackles, four sacks and seven tackles for loss. He has one end spot locked down. The other spot is a toss up between junior Sam Ruhe, who is converting back to end from middle linebacker; junior Jeremiah Davis; sophomore Lavon Chisley, who may play outside linebacker; sophomore Matt Rice; and even sophomore Scott Paxson, who could end up on defense at end or tackle or on offense at tight end or guard.
Rather than the physically dominating group Penn State has had in the past, this year's line will be lighter and quicker. Though the unit lacks Jimmy Kennedy-style bulk, it will not be entirely undersized. A pair of 275-pound players, sophomore Tamba Hali and junior Jason Robinson, will likely start at tackle. If he is not moved to offensive tackle, 312-pound redshirt freshman Levi Brown will be in the rotation, as will redshirt freshmen Edward Johnson and Jason Alford.
Senior middle ‘backer Gino Capone returns after a solid 2002 campaign. He tallied 86 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss and should get first-team all-conference consideration this season.
On the outside, junior Derek Wake started and turned in 51-3.5-10 last year as the strongside linebacker. On the weakside will be senior Deryck Toles, a highly athletic player who had 32-0.5-4.5 playing in 10 games last season. An enzyme disorder has limited Toles to playing about half a game during his career. The Nittany Lions have plenty of depth on the outside, though, with former starter Lamar Stewart (62 tackles), fellow juniors Jimi Mitchell (11) and T.C. Cosby (15) and redshirt freshman J.R. Zwierzynski providing quality depth.
The Nittany Lions have their work cut out for them replacing Mayer and Scott and this unit has two important players returning from injury. Safeties Calvin Lowry and Yaacov Yisrael have tons of talent and have been productive. However, Lowry broke his leg in the fourth game last season, and Yisrael is returning from a torn ACL. Filling in for his injured teammates, senior strong safety Chris Harrell had 85 tackles last season and should fill one of the safety positions this fall.
Senior Richard Gardner returns at one cornerback spot. He had two interceptions last season, both returned for touchdowns, and tallied 64 tackles. Likely replacing Scott is sophomore Alan Zemaitis. Redshirt freshman Maurice Humphrey and sophomore Gio Vendemia will compete for playing time.
The 2003 team boasts an experienced, talented linebacker corps and some adequate talent on the line and in the secondary. The Nittany Lions defense, like its offense, could very well be solid this season, but it will be a shadow of last year's play making group. The new players will need to have a fast learning curve and the Nittany Lions need someone to step up opposite Gardner at corner in order for the defense, and the team, to be consistently competitive.