football Edit

Penn State football: Anatomy of a position group — The safeties

Blue White Illustrated has begun a new series breaking down each Penn State Nittany Lions football position group and how it was constructed, also touching on its outlook ahead of the 2021 season and looking further forward. We continue the series with Penn State's safeties.


Running Backs

Tight Ends

Wide Receivers

Offensive Line

PSU's Safety Recruiting Since 2016

*Rudolph was listed as a cornerback but is a safety at Penn State

**Wheatley was listed as a safety by Rivals but he appears on Penn State's roster as a corner after arriving on campus

***Flowers is listed as an athlete by Rivals, but was recruited to play safety and wide receiever by Penn State

2021 Penn State Safety Outlook 

Current Roster Safeties (Scholarship Only)
Player Experience  Stars 

Jonathan Sutherland

Redshirt Senior

Jaquan Brisker


Jaylen Reed


Enzo Jennings

Redshirt Freshman

Ji'Ayir Brown


Tyler Rudolph

Redshirt Sophomore

Drew Hartlaub

Redshirt Senior

Keaton Ellis*


*Ellis remains listed as a cornerback on Penn State's roster, but Brent Pry said this summer that Penn State will move him to safety.

Penn State enters 2021 with a bastion of reliability at safety returning in Jaquan Brisker, who decided to give it one more season in Happy Valley rather than depart for the NFL.

That decision totally changed the dynamic for Penn State's group of safeties.

Rather than needing to replace both Brisker and Lamont Wade (who does not appear on our first chart because he started his career as a cornerback), the Nittany Lions can now integrate one new starter in alongside Brisker, who is widely expected to be one of the top safeties in the country.

The two players who seem best positioned to claim that other starting job heading into spring camp are Jonathan Sutherland and Ji'Ayir Brown — who, like Brisker, is a Juco product from Lackawanna College.

Sutherland has been contributing significantly as a backup and on special teams for the better part of three seasons for the Nittany Lions, and will certainly have designs of finally claiming a starting spot.

Brown, on the other hand, attracted plenty of praise from his teammates and coaching staff this spring.

"Brisker could play either safety spot and you've got Sutherland, who's got experience, and got some strengths in some areas," Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. "You got Ji'Ayir Brown, who really has us excited right now. He can play either safety spot."

Beyond that, Penn State also added a new safeties coach in Anthony Poindexter, who arrived from Purdue to replace Tim Banks after he left to become the defensive coordinator at Tennessee.

Poindexter has earned positive reviews from players so far because of the energy he brings.

"No matter if it's 4 a.m. or 8 o'clock at night, he has energy," Brisker said. "He has a lot of knowledge. He played the safety position, so he knows what it's like to be back there. He was in our shoes once. He was a two-time consensus All-American, so he knows what he's talking about. He brings a lot of energy, a lot of juice, a lot of positivity. That's my guy, Coach Poindexter."

Beyond Brisker, Sutherland and Brown, the Nittany Lions have some interesting depth options.

Pry said this summer that Tyler Rudolph has turned a corner, and Jaylen Reed and Enzo Jennings are both four-star prospects who give Penn State's staff some talented youth to work with.

Additionally, cornerback Keaton Ellis has made the move to safety from cornerback, and will provide another option.

"Keaton's a guy that is going to battle for starting time wherever you put him in the back end," Pry said. "We feel really good about that, coming out of there with four guys that we feel we can win with."

Looking Ahead at Penn State's Safeties 

Penn State's position at the safety spot coming out of 2021 could be an interesting one.

This is Brisker's final season in Happy Valley, no matter what. Additionally, Sutherland and Brown both have senior eligibility, meaning this will be their final season as well unless they choose to exercise their option for an extra year that the NCAA granted all athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Should Sutherland and Brown decide against doing so, the Nittany Lions would likely be looking at a rather inexperienced starting safety tandem in 2022.

Perhaps this is a position James Franklin and his staff could target in the transfer portal next offseason should that scenario play out.

Still, there is reason to be optimistic about the talent the Nittany Lions have amassed at the safety spot.

Ellis, Rudolph, Jennings and Reed were all four-star prospects, and have the tools to make a difference for Penn State moving forward.

Lackawanna College's safety pipeline to Penn State will continue next season as well, when Tyrece Mills arrives to join the Nittany Lions — the third Falcons safety to do so in the last five years.

The safety spot could be an unknown in the immediate future, but there is the necessary talent available to turn the position into an asset for Penn State moving forward.


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