Taking Stock: Defensive Line
Blue White Illustrated continues its multi-part series examining the Nittany Lion roster as it proceeds through winter workouts and eventually into spring practices. Today, we'll continue with a look at Penn State's defensive line:
When Shareef Miller set out, publicly, to see his Penn State defense rack up a record-shattering 50 sacks on the 2018 season, the claim might have been understood to be nothing more than an outspoken aspiration.
After all, the Nittany Lions lost Torrence Brown and Ryan Buchholz, with their 13 combined career starts, before the season even began. Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren, starting DTs from the 2016 and 2017 seasons with a combined 47 career starts, also were gone.
Ultimately, Miller’s stated goal proved to be too lofty. The Nittany Lions merely managed to match the program record of 47 sacks for the season.
Whether or not the Nittany Lions can duplicate or improve on the effort this season, particularly through its production up front, will depend on at least two new faces. Both Miller and Kevin Givens chose not to play their final seasons of eligibility with the Nittany Lions, pursuing an NFL career instead.
Likewise, C.J. Thorpe, moved from the offensive line to the defensive line to supplement the loss of Fred Hansard due to injury last season, has since at least temporarily moved back to the offensive line this winter.
What’s left then in terms of returning starters will be Rob Windsor in the middle following a breakout 2018 campaign and a 13-game starter in Yetur Gross-Matos at end. Windsor posted 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 12 games last season, missing the Citrus Bowl due to an unspecified violation of team rules. Gross-Matos, meanwhile, was good for 54 tackles and team-highs in tackles for loss (20.0) and sacks (8.0).
Under the tutelage of assistant Sean Spencer, who prefers to rotate players frequently, the depth of the Nittany Lion defensive line also returns plenty of experience. And its experience in some ways forced on the group even further with some of the injuries sustained through the course of the 2018 season.
“We've got to keep developing those other guys: P.J. Mustipher, Antonio Shelton… and Damion Barber. We're going to have to develop those guys,” said Franklin last October. “Damion is going to have to factor in now and be able to get some work for us. P.J. is going to have to grow up fast. Obviously, he is a true freshman. Antonio Shelton, we've seen some good things from him. “Those guys have to play bigger roles, there's no doubt about it. That's the situation we're in. We feel good about what Kevin and Robert are doing, but they are going to have to help those other guys out, as well.” Soon enough, we’ll learn how much progress was made in their developments through those experiences.
Set to begin his redshirt junior season, Antonio Shelton is coming off his first career start in the Citrus Bowl in place of Windsor. His 237 reps last season, according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics, were the most among Penn State’s backup defensive tackles.
Lost for the season against Michigan State with an unspecified leg injury, Hansard also figures to factor strongly in the tackle rotation. He appeared frequently in Penn State’s rotation through the nonconference portion of the schedule before his reps dipped against Big Ten opponents, but the Nittany Lion staff will no doubt be counting on his healthy return to the unit before the start of the 2019 season.
Other options for the interior of the Lions’ line will include P.J. Mustipher coming off his redshirt freshman campaign (196 reps for 14 tackles and 1.0 tackles for loss), plus Damion Barber (21 reps in three games), possibly Ellison Jordan (66 reps in three games with 2.0 tackles), and true freshmen Aeneas Hawkins and Judge Culpepper. Though Hawkins and Culpepper didn’t see any action this past season, Mustipher’s performance drew real praise from head coach James Franklin when asked about the players who outplayed the initial expectations of the staff.
First crediting defensive end Jayson Oweh and receiver Jahan Dotson, Franklin turned to Mustipher.
“The third guy I would say, is you never really expect to be able to play an O-lineman or a D-lineman as a freshman, so P.J. Mustipher playing as a true freshman at defensive tackle, where that’s a grown man’s game in there,” said Franklin. “He’s been able to be pretty good and I think right now he’s really starting to come into his own. Last week I thought was his best game by far.”
Oweh, of course, will also be a name to watch as the Lions consider some of the options available as they try to develop a new rotation on the edges.
Gross-Matos has backed up all expectations, leaving no doubt about it in the minds of his Penn State coaches and teammates.
“Yetur is obviously a very promising member of our defense right now. He came into our program pretty raw but with great work ethic and a good skill set,” said defensive coordinator Brent Pry. “He’s very eager. He’s got a great motor. And so we knew that he would turn the corner at some point. You just don’t know when that’s going to occur. The more reps he got, the more experience he got, you would see the improvement. I think the production you saw was a result of him taking to coaching and having a great work ethic and getting a good opportunity.”
Answers are still to come for the reliability of Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, and Daniel Joseph. Toney finished the 2018 season with the most reps of the group (325), followed by Joseph (183) and Simmons (133 in eight games), but all three must answer questions about their ability to defend the run.
Still, as Franklin has made clear throughout Toney’s tenure at Penn State, the Nittany Lion coaching staff relishes versatility in the room and is constantly seeking avenues to best utilize those specific attributes.
“I think that's one of the things that you have to be careful as coaches are not all these guys come in the same package. Not all of them look like Yetur Gross-Matos,” said Franklin. “You've got Shaka; you've got all these different body types, but you've got guys that have got a chance to be successful playing to their strengths and coaches taking advantage of those strengths.”
Oweh and Nick Tarburton, meanwhile, appeared during their true freshman seasons (and Franklin even highlighted Oweh first in the group that outperformed expectations) but maintained their redshirts. In what could be a preview of things to come, offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez specifically picked out Tarburton for his potential up front.
“Nick Tarburton would be a really good defensive linemen. (He's) a little undersized right now obviously because he had to make the transition from linebacker to D-end,” said Gonzalez. “But once he finishes out throughout the year and goes through winter and goes through spring, I think he's going to be really good. He plays really well and plays really hard.”