Previewing Penn State's defensive line entering the 2022 season
We continue our positional previews here at Nittany Nation by moving to Penn State's defensive line. The defensive line entering 2022 for Penn State is expected to be one of the Nittany Lions' biggest strengths, especially up the middle at defensive tackle. The Nittany Lions are expected to start three former four-star prospects and have an additional six former four-star or five-star prospects ready to serve as contributors.
The defensive tackle room is arguably the deepest of the James Franklin era while the defensive end room has a high amount of upside at the top of the depth chart but depth could be a concern.
We have quite a bit to talk about it, so let's dive right into it and take a look at the Nittany Lions' projected starting defensive line.
The Nittany Lions' starting defensive line:
Defensive End: RS JR Adisa Isaac
Isaac was expected to be major part of Penn State's plans in the 2021 season on the defensive line and was considered by many as a major breakout candidate. Unfortunately, a torn Achilles suffered in fall practice knocked Isaac out for the entirety of the 2021 season. The former four-star prospect returned to the field this month and has changed quite a bit of how the Nittany Lions view their defensive line. "We're a different animal at defensive end," defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said during his media day availability, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said Isaac's addition as well as the addition of Maryland transfer Chop Robinson in comparison to how the defensive end room looked during spring practices. Isaac has a chance to be a game changer off the edge for the Nittany Lions now that he's fully healthy and the program is expecting him to be just that.
Defensive Tackle: Senior+ PJ Mustipher
After suffering a knee injury in the first half of the Nittany Lions' 23-20 loss to Iowa last October, Mustipher returns to the field this season for the Nittany Lions full healthy. The super-senior defensive tackle has totaled over 107 tackles in his 39 career games including nine tackles for a loss and three sacks. A disruptive defensive tackle, Mustipher is one of the biggest keys to the Nittany Lions' front seven this season. When healthy, Mustipher is not just one of the Big Ten's best defensive tackles but one of the best defensive tackles in the entire country.
Defensive Tackle: RS JR Hakeem Beamon OR RS JR Dvon Ellies
Beamon missed all of last season due to undisclosed reasons but has been a major talking point of Penn State's fall camp thus far. The redshirt junior has played in 11 games for his career, recording nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss in the process. The Midlothian (VA) was expected to be a starter for the Nittany Lions in 2021 prior to his absence. Now back with the program and ready for action this fall, Beamon is making a strong push to be the starter at defensive tackle so far in fall camp.
Ellies has been another name getting quite a bit of discussion as a potential starter this offseason. Last year, he appeared in all 13 games for the Nittany Lions and made one start. He recorded 15 tackles including 1.5 tackles for a loss. While Mustipher is locked into being a starter as long as he remains healthy, Ellie's starting spot is one that could be in flux throughout the season.
Defensive End: RS SR Nick Tarburton
Tarburton is battling it out with the aforementioned Chop Robinson for the other starting defensive end job. Right now, we'll give the nod to Tarburton as the starter heading into week one due to his experience at the position.
The redshirt senior played in all 13 games for the Nittany Lions last season and made eight starts. He recorded 30 tackles including four tackles for a loss and one sack. He also had a fumble recovery against Wisconsin in the 2021 season opener. His best performance of the 2021 season came in the Nittany Lions' Outback Bowl game against Arkansas, recording eight tackles including two tackles for a loss and one sack. The Nittany Lions are hoping the momentum from that Outback Bowl performance will carry over to this upcoming season. He hasn't shown the ability to be an overpowering defensive end who can consistently dominate opposing offensive lineman but could provide stability in the defensive end room.
Defensive End depth:
The outside linebacker turned defensive end is definitely impressing in his few weeks of practice and will likely see his role grow as the season goes on. Robinson will likely start the season as the Nittany Lions' backup to Tarburton but could quickly take over the starting role. He may some hiccups as he makes the move to the defensive end, now having his hand in the dirt every play but his potential is sky high.
Role: Top of the rotation / borderline starter
Dennis-Sutton is a bit of a wild card and it's a decent question of what is fair to expect out of the former five-star prospect in his true freshman season. He will play, that is for sure, as long as he's healthy, he'll be on the field. Penn State's coaching staff seems happy with the Owings Mills natives' development so far on campus and head coach James Franklin hasn't been shy about expectations surrounding Dennis-Sutton entering the season. While he may not make a major impact in the early weeks of the season, don't be surprised if the top-10 player nationally in the 2022 recruiting cycle rises to near the top of the Nittany Lions' snap counts as the season progresses.
Role: Top of the rotation
The sophomore defensive end has appeared in eight games over the last two seasons, recording seven tackles and one tackle for a loss. He'll have a bigger role in 2022 and will be one of the Nittany Lions' rotational players at defensive end. He's shown flashes but will need to put it all together if he hopes to maintain a considerable role in the rotation.
Role: Mid rotation
Vilbert played in all 12 games for Penn State in 2021 and made one start. His impact throughout the regular season was minimal but felt in a major way during the Nittany Lions' Outback Bowl game against Arkansas. In that game, Vilbert tied an Outback Bowl record with three sacks. Could that Outback Bowl performance be a sign of things to come in 2022?
Role: Mid rotation
Townley's true freshman season in 2021 served as a fully developmental one as he saw no playing time throughout the season. Since arriving on campus, Townley has added nearly 20 pounds to his 6-foot-6 frame and could be ready to contribute on the field. Heading into the season, Townley isn't expected to have a major role in the Nittany Lions defense but could become a contributor if his development allows.
Role: Back end of the rotation
Much like Townley, McGraw's true freshman season was purely developmental. In 2022, McGraw is likely to serve a reserve role for Penn State receiving limited playing time.
Overall, Penn State has quite a bit of talent at the defensive end position but there is certainly some concerns.
The trio of Adisa Isaac, Chop Robinson, and Dani Dennis-Sutton will surely get all the attention, each player has tremendous potential at the position and could develop into All-Big Ten candidates at the position at one point or another in their career. That being said, Isaac is returning from a major injury, Robinson is still in the midst of a positional change, and Dennis-Sutton while appearing ahead of schedule is still unproven at the college level. Nick Tarburton will provide a bit of stability as long as he stays healthy but also hasn't shown the upside of the trio mentioned above.
If the Nittany Lions suffer any sort of injuries at the position, it could force players such as Vanover or Vilbert into bigger roles. While both have shown flashes, neither is likely ready to take on a bigger role in 2022 than a mid-rotational depth piece. Minnesota native and former four-star Davon Townley might have the highest upside of the mid-to-back rotational depth pieces for the Nittany Lions but has yet to see the field either for the program.
While the top four for the Nittany Lions in Isaac, Robinson, Dennis-Sutton, and Tarburton should be able to provide quite the contributions if fully healthy, the depth at the position could create some issues for the Nittany Lions as the season progresses or any injuries occur along the way.
Defensive Tackle depth:
Seeing playing time in both of his first two years on campus, Izzard became a reliable presence in the middle of Penn State's defensive line last year, following the loss of PJ Mustipher. The Maryland native played in all of the Nittany Lions' 13 games and made seven starts. For the season, he recorded 21 tackles including three for a loss and two sacks. He notably also recorded two forced fumbles. He'll be among the Nittany Lions' top rotational pieces at the position and could push for starting time.
Role: Top of the rotation
The Johannesburg, South Africa native appeared in four games last season for Penn State as a true freshman and recorded six tackles. He's someone who has developed rather quickly for the Nittany Lions and has become a factor in the defensive tackle room. While still a raw prospect, Van Den Berg has all the skills and traits of a potential impact player at defensive tackle. He's someone who has a considerable amount of buzz surrounding his name since arriving on campus and a player that the program is very high on.
Role: Mid-to-top of the rotation
The talented true freshman out of Orlando (FL) is the rare case of a defensive tackle prospect being ready for college football right away. He won't be a day one starter but Durant much like Dani Dennis-Sutton at the defensive end could be a player that we see go from a mid-rotational player to start the season to someone who is pushing for quite a bit of playing time by the end.
Role: Mid-rotational player
With Penn State's deep depth at defensive tackle, Mulbah will once again serve as a deep rotational / reserve role for Penn State in 2022.
Role: Reserve role (limited snaps)
The three-star prospect in the 2022 recruiting class will almost surely redshirt in 2022 for Penn State. He may receive a few snaps in a game or two throughout the season if the situation permits.
Role: Redshirt season
Overall, Penn State's depth at defensive tackle is among the best in the Big Ten and potentially the country. The Nittany Lions arguably have four players who could reasonably start for them at the position entering the season in Mustipher, Beamon, Ellies, and Izzard. Van Den Berg and Durant both have great upside and could be high-impact players down the road as well but will both have quality roles this upcoming season as well. Unlike at the defensive end, the depth should not be a major concern for Penn State in the defensive tackle room nor should experience.