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Penn State’s Future Secondary?: What Analytics say About The Lions’ projected Returners

With just one regular-season game to go, Penn State fans will spend a lot of time between now and the bowl game– and the offseason months afterward– thinking about 2022. 

Will Sean Clifford stay? If not, will Drew Allar start at quarterback as a true freshman? Who’s going to come in through the transfer portal and be the new Arnold Ebiketie? Who is going to leave through the transfer portal and be the new Will Levis?

Among the questions will be Penn State’s defense, which is losing a lot of talent as it is, and could lose even more depending on whether linebacker Brandon Smith or anybody else decides to declare for the NFL draft before their senior year.  

In particular, the secondary is a concern. JaQuan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown are arguably the best pair of safeties in college football. Brisker will for sure be gone in 2022, and Brown may be as well despite having the option to come back and be a super senior. Tariq Castro-Fields has been in the program for five years, and he’ll be moving on as well. 

While it’s uncertain what Penn State secondary– or anything else– will look like next season, here’s a preview of what the Nittany Lions project to return. Granted, playing time will be determined by how aggressive the Nittany Lions are in the transfer portal and how many incoming freshman/redshirts are that good right away. Nonetheless, here is what Pro Football Focus says about the players in the secondary that Penn State projects to return next season, based on who has gotten the most snaps of those projected returners. 

Here is PFF’s player grading scale for reference:

100-90: Elite

89-85: Pro Bowler

84-70: Starter 

69-60: Backup

59-0: Replaceable

JOEY PORTER JR.

I wouldn’t be shocked if Porter declared for the NFL Draft, but let’s assume he stays. 

Always a name to follow because of who his father is, Porter Jr. has been an every-week starter for Penn State since his redshirt freshman season of 2020. In what’s been an up-and-down year for Penn State overall in 2021, Porter’s individual season has mirrored his team. 

Porter, a North Allegheny graduate, had a promising first five games, only having a defensive grade below 70 in one of them. Since the Week 5 shutout of Indiana, however, the younger Joey has struggled. 

Starting with the Nittany Lions’ first loss of the season in Weel 6 against Iowa, Porter hasn’t his overall defensive grade hit 70 for a game. In the past four contests, his highest grade is 56.1. His lowest-graded performance came Nov. 6 in Maryland. Here, Porter allowed seven completions on eight targets for 86 yards and also picked up two penalties.  

While he hasn’t played as well on the back end of 2021, Porter has had a solid season overall, with a 70.4 overall defensive grade.

DAEQUAN HARDY

Another WPIAL player, the Penn Hills standout has been used mainly as a nickel back in his redshirt-sophomore season. Mainly guarding the slot, Hardy has held his own in a bigger role from a year ago. 

He has a 69.7 overall grade, a 72 rating in coverage and a 72.5 tackling rating. Hardy’s heaviest workload of 2021 came at Maryland when he was on the field for 50 snaps– 18 more than his next busiest game. Although Hardy struggled in some areas– his tackling rating was a lukewarm 56– he swam above water overall, posting a 70.6 coverage grade and a 66.7 overall grade. 

Interestingly enough, Hardy’s highest-graded game of 2021 was the one game he played at strong safety. Against Ball State in Week 2, Hardy filled in, playing a season-high 11 snaps in the box out of 28 snaps overall.

His grades for that game were superb; 86 overall, 89.2 in coverage and 79.4 in tackling. With Brisker and Brown both potentially leaving, Penn State will need guys to step up at safety next season. Maybe Hardy will see more time at that position.

KALEN KING

A four-star recruit from Detroit, Michigan, King, like many true freshmen, has experienced some growing pains in 2021, by PFF’s metrics. 

The young corner has played sparingly in his first year, with only 166 snaps overall. In the past two games, however, King’s usage has gone up, with 57 combined snaps. Thirty-six of those came Nov. 13 against Michigan, and the results were mixed; a 63.8 overall grade and a paltry 35.1 tackling grade.

King’s overall grade for the season is 65.5. His grades in run-defense (59.1) and tackling (53.5) have plenty of room for improvement, but his 66.3 coverage grade is respectable. With Castro-Fields set to move on after this year, a door could well be open for King to get more playing time and progress further in 2022.

KEATON ELLIS

As a State College native, Ellis is an easy guy to root for, but he’s had his struggles in 2021.

Not getting his season started until Week 4 against Villanova, the injury bug bit Ellis again in Week 6 against Iowa. He left after two snaps and didn’t play again until three weeks later at Ohio State.

When Ellis has been healthy and providing depth behind Brisker and Brown at safety, the results have been passable, but little else. His overall defensive grade is 62, and although his run defense (73.6) and tackling (85.3) have been good, his coverage (58.7) and pass rush (56.3) haven’t. With Ellis set to be a senior next season and with so many options available via the transfer portal, it will be intriguing to find out if Ellis will ever become a full-time starter at his hometown college.

After transferring from South Carolina, Johnny hasn’t had too many chances to be good in 2021, but he’s made the most of his limited opportunities. Of Penn State’s projected returners in the secondary, Dixon’s overall defensive grade of 70.5 ranks the highest, albeit in just 141 snaps. Dixon has only been on the field for more than 20 snaps in four games, but in those games, his overall grades have been no lower than 66.6.

Should Hardy moved to safety next year– which is, of course, a complete hypothetical– Dixon may end up battling with King for a starting corner position. 

It will be hard for Penn State to make up for the loss of JaQuan Brisker and potentially Ji’Ayir Brown in 2022, regardless of how the returners shape up or what transfers/recruits come in. Right now, Penn State has a lot of “backup” level players coming back, according to PFF. But that could change, and how much it changes could be a significant factor in determining how successful next season ends up being. 

 

Note: An earlier version of this article said that Ji’Ayir Brown would not be with the Penn State football program in 2022. This is not confirmed yet, as Brown has another year of eligibility available to him.

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