Last time we looked at the returners on the Penn State offense and the impact that they will likely have. This week we will dive into the Nittany Lion defense. Specifically, Lamont Wade and the Penn State secondary. Normally, we would start at the defensive line position and work our way back, but this week will be going backward. The Penn State secondary was arguably a weak point of an otherwise strong defensive unit last season. That will be much different this year as the unit has experience and talent in both Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields. So, let’s get started.
Lamont Wade and the Penn State Secondary
Last season the Penn State defense was highlighted by the linebacker unit and the defensive line. This is usually the case for the Nittany Lions. A strong defensive front is something that the Penn State coaches pride themselves on. The problem, the secondary has not been as strong in recent years. The group gave up nearly 500 passing yards in the win against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. Further, the Nittany Lions allowed 339 passing yards in the loss to Minnesota. Then, a week later allowed 371 passing yards in a close win against Indiana.
Looking to Improve
This year looks to be different for Wade and the secondary. On a virtual Zoom meeting this week, Cornerbacks Coach Terry Smith stated that Wade is captain material and has been a voice for the defense. Wade is about to be a senior and before the 2019 season, he thought about transferring away from Penn State. It is a good thing he decided to stay. The soon-to-be-senior accounted for two sacks, four-and-a-half tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles in 2019. Joining Wade is Jaquan Brisker and Jonathan Sutherland. Both made an impact a season ago. Having that senior leadership at both the safety position with Wade and the cornerback position will be good for a very youth-heavy group.
Leadership is Key
This will be the second year in a row that the secondary is filled with talented young guys. John Reid was the voice in the locker room in 2019, but the longtime Nittany Lion will not be there in 2020. Instead, he will be looking to play on Sundays. The leadership role will now fall to Wade and Castro-Fields. Castro-Fields had a good first half to the 2019 season, but an injury to start the second half of the season inhibited his growth. The corner did record two interceptions in 2019. According to Smith, the coaching staff is looking to Castro-Fields to be the team’s lockdown corner in 2020.
With these two leading the secondary and having the game experience, there is no excuse for the type of play that occurred against Rutgers. The unit did not give up over 200 passing yards, but it looked like there was a lot of confusion. Freshman standout Keaton Ellis is returning as only a sophomore and Donovan Johnson will hopefully be healthy. The secondary will have talent, including several true and redshirt freshmen. Hopefully, the unit can improve upon last season’s performances.
The Rest of the Defensive Units
Now, we aren’t going to neglect the other defensive units. Highlighting the linebacker group is All-American Micah Parsons. As a true sophomore in 2019 Parsons accounted for 109 total tackles. In addition, he had four forced fumbles, five sacks, and 14 tackles for loss. Parsons is not the only linebacker returning for the Nittany Lions. Jesse Luketa is likely to see a larger role in 2020. Luketa had four passes defended a season ago. Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith will also be returning in 2020. Brooks recorded a fumble recovery, three sacks, and four-and-a-half tackles for loss a season ago. Finally, as a true freshman, Smith played in seven games and recorded two tackles for loss on 14 total tackles.
Lastly, let’s look at the defensive line. This unit will have a new coach this coming season. John Scott Jr. will be taking over for Sean Spencer. Penn State hopes to start where they left off in 2019. Last season the Nittany Lions were ranked fifth in rushing defense and seventh in team sacks. The unit is returning Shaka Toney to lead the defensive ends. Toney is joined by Jason Oweh and Shane Simmons, among others. Toney was Second-Team All-Big Ten a season ago. At defensive tackle, Penn State is returning Fred Hansard, Antonio Shelton, and PJ Mustipher to name a few.
The Nittany Lion coaches and players are working to improve at all positions, but especially in the secondary. Last season the secondary was seen as the weak link in an otherwise strong defense. This can be attributed to youth and inexperience in most positions. There will be more experience in the secondary in 2020, with that comes more talent. Look for the secondary to make great strides in the Fall.