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Penn State football: Breaking down Nittany Lions’ defensive position battles at linebacker, safety, defensive line | Spring camp

A possible battle at quarterback between Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford might command the headlines. But Penn State’s spring camp will be filled with crucial developments on the defensive side of the ball.

The Nittany Lions have true openings at defensive tackle, defensive end and safety. Amani Oruwariye’s departure theoretically leaves one cornerback spot up for grabs, but there’s no question that John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields will man the outside. The first-team group at linebacker seems set for now, but up-and-comers such as Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks might have something to say about that.

Earlier in the week, we broke down Penn State’s offensive position battles we’ll see unfold in spring camp, which begins next Wednesday. Now, let’s take a look at Brent Pry’s evolving defense.

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Penn State defensive tackle Fred Hansard during practice on Tuesday, August 21, 2018.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Defensive tackle

Gone: Kevin Givens, CJ Thorpe (back to offense)

Returners: Robert Windsor, Antonio Shelton, Fred Hansard, PJ Mustipher, Ellison Jordan, Damion Barber, Aeneas Hawkins, Judge Culpepper

Newcomers: D’Von Ellies (fall), Joseph Appiah Darkwa (fall)

Outlook: Givens and Windsor played off each other well in 2018; the former used his quickness to disrupt opponents’ backfields while the latter bull-rushed his way past Big Ten guards. The two combined for 12.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss.

Instead of returning that duo, Sean Spencer is tasked with finding a suitable partner for Windsor. With Thorpe moving back to the offensive side of the ball, as expected, the D-line coach has Shelton, Hansard and Mustipher to choose from.

Shelton is the most senior member of the contenders. He’s a leader, but wasn’t too productive with only 1.5 TFLs and a sack last season. Hansard started in place of a suspended Givens in Week 1 but suffered a season-ending injury in October. He’ll need to work his way back into playing form to compete. And Mustipher, who appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman, has been described by Spencer as a “man” and is talented enough to wedge his way into the conversation.

Jordan has dealt with knee issues throughout his career, Barber barely played in 2018, neither Hawkins nor Culpepper saw the field, and Ellies and Darkwa won’t factor into first-team contention as true freshmen arriving after spring camp.

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Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney reacts after sacking Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett during a game against Pitt Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Phoebe Sheehan psheehan@centredaily.com

Defensive end

Gone: Shareef Miller

Returners: Yetur Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, Jayson Oweh, Daniel Joseph, Nick Tarburton

Newcomers: Adisa Isaac (spring), Hakeem Beamon (fall), Smith Vilbert (fall)

Outlook: Gross-Matos is locked in as a starter — and a possible Day 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. But there’s plenty of intrigue this spring surrounding defensive end: Will Toney or Simmons create separation from one another?

The pair of veterans are competing to replace Miller in the starting lineup, and both bring something unique to the table. Toney, more of a natural pass-rusher who improved in the run game last season, showed a flash of dominance in the fourth quarter at Indiana when he logged four sacks in six minutes. Simmons, meanwhile, ranked as the No. 41 overall prospect in the 2016 class and was locked in a heated battle with Gross-Matos for the 2018 starting spot opposite Miller before succumbing to an injury that nagged him for most of the season.

Spring camp will be important for the rest of the D-ends, too. Oweh will look to take the next step and grow into his freakish frame, and Isaac has an opportunity to prove what he can do in his first camp.

But all eyes will be on Simmons and Toney. Jobs are rarely won in the spring, but either one of the pass-rushers can take a significant step toward starting opposite Gross-Matos on Aug. 31.

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Kentucky’s ball carrier is stopped by Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks during the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 at Camping World Stadium.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Linebacker

Gone: Koa Farmer, Jarvis Miller, Brelin Faison-Walden, Jake Cooper, Dae’Lun Darien

Returners: Cam Brown, Jan Johnson, Micah Parsons, Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Charlie Katshir

Newcomers: Brandon Smith (spring), Lance Dixon (spring)

Outlook: Parsons and Brown won’t have to worry about their starting gigs on the outside. But Johnson, a former walk-on, will have to keep fighting to maintain his first-team status at middle linebacker.

Brooks, a rising redshirt sophomore who appeared in 12 games last year, is hungry. So are Luketa and Smith. The latter is an especially intriguing candidate to unseat Johnson. Smith was the No. 1 inside linebacker and No. 18 player overall in the 2019 class. He stands at 6-foot-4, runs a 4.59-second 40-yard dash and projects as a future first-round pick, per 247 Sports expert Barton Simmons.

It’s difficult for young players to learn how to play MIKE. The job is more than reacting and making plays; it’s setting up the defense, barking out calls and providing leadership. Smith is talented enough to start Week 1, no doubt about that. But this spring will be crucial in his development from a mental and conceptual standpoint.

“He’s been working hard. He’s been lifting hard,” Johnson said of Smith on Feb. 16. “We’ll see how quickly he can pick up the playbook. That’s the next step for him.”

Dixon is a player to watch, as well. The outside ‘backer earned his fifth star from 247 Sports’ base ranking system late in the process and could end up being Brown’s successor. A starting trio of Parsons-Smith-Dixon is possible in 2020 — and this spring could go a long way in making that happen.

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Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland knocks the ball away from Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson during the game on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Safety

Gone: Nick Scott, Ayron Monroe, Isaiah Humphries

Returners: Garrett Taylor, Lamont Wade, Jonathan Sutherland, John Petrishen

Newcomers: Tyler Rudolph (spring), Jaquan Brisker (fall)

Outlook: Brisker is going to have an opportunity to land the starting job. But he won’t be in Happy Valley until the summer at the earliest. His absence creates an opportunity for Wade and Sutherland in the spring.

Wade has had a very public offseason to say the least. The rising junior, who has not graduated, entered the transfer portal, posted a picture of an empty locker on his Instagram story and later decided to stay at Penn State. The former five-star cornerback who moved to safety last offseason grew into the new position in 2018, and his cover-first skill-set would pair nicely with Taylor.

Sutherland, meanwhile, fits perfectly as a 2020 replacement for Taylor at strong safety. The hard-hitting rising redshirt sophomore started in place of Taylor against Iowa while veteran served a first-half suspension for targeting. And Sutherland played well, displaying a nose for the football. But the Canadian could also move to free safety for 2019. Or Taylor could shift over and allow Sutherland to flourish at strong.

With Brisker still wrapping things up at Lackawanna C.C., who will see first-team snaps alongside Taylor: Wade or Sutherland? That’s one question on everyone’s minds entering spring camp.

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