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Entrance Exam: Three season-defining questions for Penn State's safeties

With less than a month until the Penn State Nittany Lions football season begins, Blue-White Illustrated is breaking down the key questions facing each Penn State position group in its new series, Entrance Exam, beginning on the defensive side of the ball with Penn State's safeties.

1. Who starts alongside Jaquan Brisker for Penn State football?

Let's start this test off with a softball and get the obvious out of the way first.

One of the starting safety positions remains very much up for grabs as the Nittany Lions enter preseason camp. With Jaquan Brisker locked in at one of those spots, who will new safeties coach Anthony Poindexter turn to alongside him?

The pre-camp favorites seem to be Jonathan Sutherland and Ji'Ayir Brown, who each present somewhat unique angles. Sutherland is a longtime contributor for Penn State as a reserve on defense and on special teams, but has never quite managed to crack the starting lineup despite his status as a team leader.

Brown, on the other hand, is a junior college product out of Lackawanna — just like Brisker — with a limited window of eligibility to make his mark. He said during an interview session this spring that he thought he was ready to start out of camp last season. He was one of the most talked-about players among his peers and coaches during Penn State's spring practice sessions.

In an interview with Blue White Illustrated this summer, Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry also tabbed Keaton Ellis, who made the move from cornerback to safety this offseason, as "a guy who is going to battle for starting time wherever you put him on the back end."

To be sure, these are some options that Penn State fans should feel good about entering the season, and there's always the possibility that one of the younger safeties emerges as a contender during summer camp, too.

Penn State Nittany Lions football safety Jaquan Brisker is rated as one of the best tacklers in the country.
Penn State Nittany Lions football safety Jaquan Brisker is rated as one of the best tacklers in the country. (Penn State Athletics)

Can Penn State football's safeties help to generate more takeaways? 

The turnover question as it relates to Penn State's defense is crucial to the Nittany Lions' success in 2021.

Penn State averaged only one takeaway per game last season, putting the Nittany Lions in the bottom 30 nationally among Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

For a team that found several different ways to lose in the margins — despite outgaining its opponents by over 100 yards per game on average — the inability of the Penn State defense to force takeaways probably went under the radar a bit.

Brisker is widely considered to be one of the top returning safeties in college football this season, but even he didn't impact the turnover column on the box score all that much last season, with only one interception and zero forced fumbles.

A large portion of the foundation for Brisker's reputation comes from his tackling ability. He missed only 1.7 percent of his tackles last season, leading all FBS safeties. Adding some turnover creation would be a great next step for the best player on Penn State's defense.

Football experts often question the year-to-year stick of turnover trends, sometimes viewing turnovers as random and therefore not likely to carry over from one season to the next.

Still, Penn State hasn't left it to chance. The Nittany Lions dedicated significant time this spring to ball disruption in practice and will hope to see that work pay off in the fall.

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How much depth does Penn State football need, and who will provide it?

In past seasons, safety has been a position where Penn State has been comfortable rotating, even in competitive games.

With a truly elite safety in Brisker, it will be interesting to see how heavily Pondexter and the rest of the Nittany Lions coaching staff decide to lean on him in 2021.

Alongside him, could what seems to have been a closely contested battle for playing time lead to more of a timeshare, especially early in the season as the Nittany Lions evaluate their options?

The two players among Brown, Sutherland and Ellis who don't end up claiming the starting job should provide some great depth for Penn State, but can any younger players break into the rotation?

Tyler Rudolph is entering his redshirt sophomore campaign, and Enzo Jennings is now a redshirt freshman. Both of those players were rated as four-star recruits by Rivals, as was true freshman Jaylen Reed.

The talent is certainly there at the safety position to create a very competitive room.

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