Power ranking the Penn State defense ahead of spring football

On3 imageby:Thomas Frank Carr02/28/24


When sitting down to do this article, I didn’t expect the process to be as difficult as it was. Today, we’re power ranking the Penn State defense heading into spring football.

For example, Penn State’s defensive tackles were rock solid, and they all returned this year. But how high does that put them on the list, given the team’s talent at other positions? There’s young, potentially superstar talent at linebacker but the group is lean on experience outside of Kobe King. 

How do you value Abdul Cater at the defensive end in the first weeks in the position? The good news for Penn State fans is that the defense is overflowing with talent, so being on the first half of this list is no shame. 

5) The Penn State cornerback room falls hard

If you rewind a year, the cornerback room was either the best or second-best unit on the team with very little debate. Yet after three starters moved on to the NFL this year, the next generation of coverage defenders is under the spotlight this spring. 

The talent in the room is clear, but how quickly can Cam Miller, Zion Tracy, Jalen Kimber, Elliot Washington, and the rest of the room work to a level of experience and production to move back up the list? Much like the offensive line, there’s plenty of Big Ten talent on the roster, but the proven production is thin. We begin the journey of discovering what type of talent they have in March. 

4) Linebacker

A few months ago, this position was possibly the best blend of returning talent and young upside on the roster. But moving Carter to the defensive end means that Kobe King is the only remaining starter from last season. 

Sophomore Tony Rojas is clearly a unique talent, but where is he playing this fall? It may be Sam linebacker, it may be Will, or it’s likely both. Playing him in the box may limit the progress of younger players such as Kaveion Keys, but Rojas’ ability to make impact plays gets a boost playing Will. It’ll be a tricky line for the Penn State defensive staff to walk. 

The chance that linebacker takes a step back schematically in favor of other positions this year is another consideration for placing them lower on the list. 

3) Defensive tackle

The Penn State defensive tackle room grew up last season. Between a late-career breakout from Dvon Ellies and Hakeem Beamon finally making good on his big frame, the defensive tackles put in the work to be great last year. 

There’s also a chance that they can be better this fall. Senior Coziah Izzard has always been one of the most talented players at the position, but he’s struggled to be consistent. Despite missing time and being a rotational player, Izzard still led the defensive tackle room with three sacks. While sacks are a somewhat overrated way to measure impact, Izzard has that skill level. 

When you factor in Zane Durant’s projected development, this group has a chance to produce at a level we haven’t seen in a while. Still, despite their new-found dependability, the top two positions have superstar potential that overshadows quality and depth. 

2) Defensive End promises extreme upside for Penn State

For now, we’re putting defensive end second on our list. However, given the talent here, that could easily flip. Penn State’s projected starting duo of Carter and Dani Dennis-Sutton have the rare chance to be two superstars at the same position. With the conversation surrounding defensive end focusing on Carter, we haven’t spoken enough about Dennis-Sutton.

The Penn State five-star edge rusher’s rise has felt like a foregone conclusion, but it was far from guaranteed. Dennis-Sutton’s potential was evident, but his lack of elite speed and stiffness were a hurdle he had to overcome. But thanks to his self-awareness and maniacal work ethic, he’s made good on that promise so far. This upcoming season is his chance to put it all together and be the next elite edge rusher for the Lions.

But back to the bigger discussion. There’s more projection at this position than at the top spot. I’m not here to be a wet blanket on the enthusiasm about Carter playing defensive end, but we’re splitting hairs between one and two. 

No matter what, Penn State’s depth with Amin Vanover, Jameial Lyons, and Zuriah Fisher ensures this will be a top position on the defense. 

1 Safety

The safety room can transform Penn State’s defense this year. Kevin Winston Jr. is already a superstar based on his play from 2023, and his national recognition should follow this year. Fellow starter Jaylen Reed improved his coverage meaningfully last season and proved he could be a multidimensional weapon. While he doesn’t have the same superstar vibes as Carter, Dennis-Sutton, and Winston, he is an outstanding player who is a proven commodity. 

With the addition of Zakee Wheatley as a starting-quality player, the safety position has the star talent, proven production, and upside heading into this spring to be the best unit on the team. With talented defenders Dakaari Nelson and King Mack waiting in the wings, this position’s dominance may continue in the long term. 

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