Penn State Football: Defensive Front Deep And Talented, And It Showed
The big question when it comes to Penn State's defensive line is not so much if it will be good, but simply how good it will end up being.
It is a pointless endeavor to try and rank the great defensive lines that have rolled through State College, an era under former defensive line coach Larry Johnson produced plenty of NFL caliber tackles, guards and ends. For a Penn State program that often found pride in tenacious defense, that pride almost always began up front.
Linebacker-U might be the slogan, but for every great linebacker to wear Blue and White, there has been a quality line in front of him.
Under the watch of current defensive line coach Sean Spencer, that mentality has not lost a step. Penn State has maintained a high-quality defensive standard throughout both the Bill O'Brien years and now entering Year 6 of the James Franklin era. Brent Pry has provided Penn State with stability after a revolving door of defensive coordinators and Spencer has been equally as integral to that success.
Even with that high standard, on paper, 2019's unit looks to be something special. Led by defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, the Nittany Lions are deep across the board, and ongoing rotations have developed depth at an impressive rate. The starting unit of Shaka Toney, Robert Windsor, Antonio Shelton and Gross-Matos are formidable, but he second unit of Jayson Owes, Damion Barber, PJ Mustipher and Shane Simmons are not far behind, if behind at all.
And that third lineup of Isaac Adisa, Fred Hansard, Judge Culpepper and Daniel Joseph only begin any sort of dip in quality.
It is the result of a few things, chief among them coaching, but also the slog back from the NCAA sanctions, scholarships and recruiting finally paying off on a roster that has the luxury of stockpiling talent.
And it's starting to show.
"I think at defensive end we are truly three-deep on each side, so six guys that we feel like we can play," James Franklin said on Saturday.
"I think at defensive tackle, we’re hitting that argument between five or six guys and the other thing is, thereality is we have to keep playing those guys to gain experience and to gain our trust. This game will give us a better determination when we watch the film in detail, who really played up to the level that we needed them to play. We think we’re in a conversation between five or six guys at defensive tackle andfive to six guys at defensive end. We probably have less questions at defensive end than we do at defensive tackle, but we’re still talking five or six."
On Saturday you saw all of that and more. Penn State's defense as a unit picked up seven sacks, with Gross-Matos leading the way with 2.5 of his own while Toney and Oweh each added a tally. PJ Mustipher was second on the team with four tackles, all while giving up just four yards on the ground.
It is true that the domination of Idaho is something to be take with a grain or two of salt, but competent and successful play is not the fault of the competent.
"It all starts with coach Spencer," Gross-Matos said after the 79-7 victory. "He does those rotations and he's on us in practice and I think it really sets the mindset of working hard. He allows us to be ourself but a part of the group at the same time. He enables us to have success and you wanna play for a guy like him and it has worked out well so far."
The question is how far this group can go. There are NFL futures for more than a few players on the Nittany Lions' defensive front and a strong year by Gross-Matos might find him inside the first-round of more than a few mock drafts and eventually the real one.
It will be a few more weeks before Penn State's defensive front will start to truly show its worth against tougher competition. But in the meanwhile this deep and talented unit play whoever lines up across the line of scrimmage.
"Continuing to dominate no matter the situation," Mustipher said of the key to success. "I think today was big stepping stone for us, we came in at halftime and had a big lead and we just continued to dominate, we just never let up and I think that's what takes us from good to great, we're proud of that."