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Penn State’s defense could be in big trouble in 2021

Photo by Penn State Athletics: LB Brandon Smith

We discussed the best news for Penn State this holiday season on Christmas day, and now it’s time for the other side of the coin. The biggest issue right now for the Nittany Lions is that they could be in trouble on defense next season.

Just a reminder: PSU opens the 2021 regular season at Wisconsin, in a Big Ten game. No matter who would be playing defense for the Lions, there’s a good chance that would be a really difficult game.

In week three, Auburn visits Beaver Stadium. The Tigers have a new head coach, Bryan Harsin, after Gus Malzahn was fired, and while it’s tough to know what to expect from Auburn right now, the guess here is they’re gonna be pretty good.

And for good measure, Penn State travels to Iowa in week five.

So, yeah, that schedule would be a big challenge for any Lion defense.

The defense that’s currently in place, though, for coordinator Brent Pry figures to be a major question mark for PSU, regardless of the competition.

Here’s why:

**Defensive end Jayson Oweh announced today that he’s leaving Penn State early to declare for the NFL draft. Oweh was a first-team all-Big Ten player who’s considered a potential first-round NFL pick based on his great potential.

**Defensive end Shaka Toney, also a first-team all-conference player and my pick as PSU’s best player this season, will be gone. He’s set to play in the Senior Bowl and, while the redshirt senior still conceivably could come back for another year under NCAA rules, there is NO reason for him to do so.

**Defensive tackle Antonio Shelton announced he’s entering the transfer portal. Shelton was a senior starter who was productive at times (3.5 sacks, 4.5 TFLs) this season. I was surprised by Shelton’s decision and believe he will be missed on the field.

**Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields missed the second half of this season and will play in the Senior Bowl. It’s doubtful he’ll return next year, although again, nothing has been made official.

**Senior safety Lamont Wade will be gone. So will the other starter at safety, Jaquan Brisker, a Pro Football Focus All-American who had a much better season than most people realize.

UPDATE Jan. 11: Both Castro-Fields and Brisker have announced they will be returning for another season, which is HUGE news for the defense. So it’s now just four starters gone, not six as mentioned below, and that’s a major benefit for the entire defense.

If you’re counting, that’s six starters gone from this defense, including the two best players (Toney and Oweh), and veterans who have played a lot of football for PSU.

These are the returning starters, as we know of now:

**DT PJ Mustipher

**LB Brandon Smith

**LB Jesse Luketa

**LB Ellis Brooks

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**CB Joey Porter Jr.

There is definitely a lot to be excited about with Porter and Smith, two excellent talents who could be in for big years in 2021. But with all due respect, we really haven’t seen those other three returning starters play up to a consistently high level in their time at Penn State.

Now, even with first-team all-conference players in Toney and Oweh, Penn State’s defense had a lot of issues this season. The unit struggled badly with tackling and big plays early in games, although it did play much better the second half of the year.

These are the Lions’ finishes in the NCAA national defensive rankings:

**57th in scoring defense (27.67): Some of this was misleading, because the offense had so many turnovers that led to points for the opposition.

**17th in total defense (328.8 yards per game): Actually not as bad as I thought it would be before looking up this number.

**110th in turnover margin (-0.78 per game): The offense turned the ball over a ton, and that’s not the defense’s problem. Still, the defense didn’t pick up its share of the slack by going out and forcing turnovers from the opposition to balance this out better.

**33rd in third-down conversion percentage (.370)

**93rd in interceptions (four total in nine games): Lousy

Again, the bottom line is PSU’s defense wasn’t terribly reliable for most of this season. Now you’re going to be taking away two all-conference players and six starters overall, and it’s hard not to be worried about the defense next year.

James Franklin has already said that one focus this offseason will be looking at defensive ends and defensive backs in the transfer portal. Don’t be surprised if the Lions find at least a couple of players in the portal who wind up being defensive starters for the opener next year.

They had better.

Because looking at the defensive depth chart as it stands right now, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about 2021.

PSU depth chart

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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