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Ben State Football: Maybe The Names Aren't There, But This Defensive Front Is Good

by on November 14, 2016 12:50 PM

When it comes to the long list of questions Penn State didn't have answers to this offseason, who exactly was going to replace three NFL defensive linemen was certainly among them.

Yes - technically - James Franklin and Sean Spencer knew who was going to play, but there was a bit of an unknown when it came to how well they would perform. One could even argue that the lone returning starter in Garrett Sickels had something to prove, that he could produce without so many stars down the line from him.

Consider that question answered.

And yet, nobody is really talking about it.

Perhaps that's simply because so many defensive linemen are rotating in this year. Penn State lacks that obvious every down threat that Carl Nassib became and the interior of the line isn't padded with obvious (at least currently) NFL players in the making. Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson were a formidable paring and the Nittany Lions aren't quite as stout between the tackles as they once were.

A rough start to the season didn't help the cause either. Pitt more or less had its way with a defensive front that wasn't ready to hit the ground running. 

So you might say it's the big plays. Penn State has given up 56 rushes of 10 or more yards. That's 67th in the country, hardly anything that's going to impress you.

But in 2015 that same highly touted defensive front gave up 69 total rushes of 10 or more yards. Penn State very well might surpass that total by the season's end, but probably not by much, if at all. That's even more likely considering that Rutgers and Michigan State are hardly, shall well say, the best offensive teams in college football this season.

The result on paper is a more historic output than people realize. Penn State has 30 sacks already this season. Four more would give the Nittany Lions the third best total for Penn State in the last nine years. Eight more and it's the second highest total. The 2015 mark of 46 sacks is currently the high water mark.

Look at tackles for a loss and it's more of the same -- 83 so far this season and 17 more would give Penn State 100 on the year for the just the third time in the last nine years. An average of eight per game in the final three games (four if a Big Ten title game is in sight) and that's the highest over that near decade-long span.

The key to this success is simply the rotation. Seven of Penn State's top 10 players in the tackles for a loss category play on the defensive front. Even more impressive is how quietly Sickles might beat Anthony Zettel's mark on his own and could very well pass Nassib's total from 2015 as well. So no, Penn State doesn't have three dominating guys on the defensive line every single down, but it does have a lot of very solid and productive ones.

"I think it has helped us all season," Franklin said on Saturday of the defensive rotations. "I know that some people have a different philosophy there and just play their best players all year long, but I think it's really important all six years as a head guy, trying to develop. What it does for you in the fourth quarter, what it does for you late in the season. I'm just really proud of our guys and our coaches for sticking to the plan. A lot of players are gaining experience which is going to help us, it's going to help us this season and it's going to help us years to come."

And as Franklin notes, it would be one thing if there was a gap between the first and second team on the defensive front, but really there isn't. At least not as far as production is concerned.

"I think if you were putting guys in who you didn't feel were ready or felt like there was a significant drop off then yeah, but we're rotating guys in and feel good about the guys who are playing." Franklin added.

The point here isn't anything deep, just a simple PSA. Penn State's defensive line is pretty good, and nobody seems to be noticing.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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