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ANALYTICS: How Penn State’s Reserves-turned-Starters Performed in the Outback Bowl

Penn State’s football team looked a lot different in its 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl than it did during the 2021 regular season. 

Six starters were missing from the Nittany Lions’ defense– five opted out and corner Tariq Castro-Fields didn’t dress for the game. On offense, star receiver Jahan Dotson opted out and offensive tackle Rasheed Walker couldn’t play due to injury. 

So a big storyline in Penn State’s bowl game and many other opt-out era bowls was; how will players do in their audition for next season?

Without preseason College Football, bowl games are the closest thing the sport has to a showcase for younger talent. Blunt people might call them “glorified exhibitions.”

Plenty of Nittany Lions had chances to show the coaching staff what they could do in a bigger role. Here’s a breakdown of how they performed against Arkansas, with numbers from Pro Football Focus. 

*Note: The performance of wideout Parker Washington won’t be broken down, as he’s been a regular starter for Penn State for two years. 

DEFENSIVE END

SMITH VILBERT

Vilbert, starting at defensive end in place of the opted-out Arnold Ebiketie, made the most significant impact amongst Penn State’s reserves, tying an Outback Bowl record with three sacks. 

His 53 snaps were by far his season-high, with the next closest being 28 against Ball State back in Week 2. The raw numbers say that Vilbert played well against Arkansas, but Pro Football Focus isn’t as kind. The outlet only gave Penn State’s redshirt sophomore a 54.4 overall grade, and his pass-rushing grade was a better-but-still-not-great 61.9. PFF also only gave him credit for two sacks. 

Next season, Penn State will need somebody to step up with Ebiketie and Luketa gone. Redshirt freshman Zuriah Fisher figures to still be in the fold. Adisa Isaac, who played a decent amount in 2020, will be coming off an injury that wiped out his entire 2021 season, and, of course, touted recruit Dani-Dennis Sutton will be coming in. 

Regardless of what the deeper numbers say, Vilbert’s certainly passed the eye test, and that could help him down the road. 

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

D’VON ELLIES

Ellies, a 6-1, 303-pounder who was a four-star recruit from Burtonsville, Maryland in the class of 2019, got the start after Derrick Tangelo opted out. 

Alongside close friend and fellow Marylander Coziah Izzard, Ellies played 43 snaps and had an overall mark of 58.3. According to PFF, his strong suit of the day was tackling, where he had a mark of 72.4

Although Tangelo is gone, Izzard will be back and there’s a chance PJ Mustipher, who went down Oct. 9 against Iowa, could return as well. Amin Vanover and Mulbah Fatorma will also be in the fold for Penn State.

DEFENSIVE BACKS 

KALEN KING

A true freshman who was a four-star recruit Detroit, King started in place of Castro-Fields and performed decently well by PFF’s numbers. 

King already saw an increased role late in the regular season, getting 36 snaps against Michigan and 40 against Michigan State. Against Arkansas, he played 69, had seven tackles and got an overall grade of 68.3. 

King’s grades were pretty steady across the board; 68.3 overall, 67.4 for coverage, 67.3 for run defense and 65.4 for coverage. 

With Castro-Fields gone, King seems to be the favorite to play opposite Joey Porter Jr. at corner in 2022, barring activity in the transfer portal. If King is to become a starter as a sophomore, he’s given Penn State fans enough to be encouraged about, both in his high school career and his limited time at Penn State. 

JAYLEN REED

Another four-star defensive back from Detroit got an audition for 2022. 

Jaylen Reed, a safety, had big shoes to fill in, having to replace all-American Jaquan Brisker, and had mixed results in his first time doing so, according to PFF. 

Reed played a season-high 42 slaps, only the third time this season he had played above 10. PFF gave him an overall grade of 59.5, propped up by a 75.4 coverage grade. He rated poorly in run defense (39.7) and tackling (27.2.) and was charged with two missed tackles. 

Despite a lukewarm performance in Tampa, Reed finished 2021 with an overall grade of 66.1 and a 77.8 coverage grade. Although he didn’t play a lot of snaps, he showed flashes in his freshman campaign and figures to have a strong chance of starting in 2022. Ji’Ayir Brown is going back, and the only way he loses his starting spot is due to injury. As of now, it looks like Reed will compete with seniors Keaton Ellis and Jonathan Sutherland for the second safety spot.

OFFENSIVE LINE

OLU FASHANU and LANDON TENGWALL

I’ve decided to pair these two up since both could be playing more prominent roles for Penn State in 2022.

Fashanu, a three-star offensive tackle from Washington, D.C., got the start at left tackle in Walker’s place. It was only the fourth game he had appeared in this season, the first since Oct. 2 against Indiana and the sophomore played 63 snaps, which was 53 more than his previous season-high. 

Overall, the 6-6, 313-pounder finished the Arkansas game with a respectable 65.2 grade and got a distinctive mark for pass blocking, coming in at 87.6 and not allowing a single quarterback pressure. 

Tengwall didn’t start the game but ended up playing 35 snaps, spending time at both guard and tackle. He allowed one quarterback pressure and finished out with a 67.4 overall grade.

At 6-6, 326, Tengwall played well in his first college start against Rutgers on senior day, playing 63 snaps and earning an 81.7 overall grade. With the offensive line struggling collectively all year, Penn State fans hope that he and Fashanu can be part of a better protection plan in 2022.

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