Rebuilding a defense, competition at right tackle & more from James Franklin and Manny Diaz
Penn State’s backbone for the majority of James Franklin’s tenure has been the team’s defense and, despite losing plenty of talent, that should be no different in 2023. Yes, there is reason to be excited about sophomore quarterback Drew Allar and the team’s offense, but the other side of the ball has created a baseline for the program for a long time.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz carried on that level of play in his first season with the program in 2022, and now is tasked with recreating it in 2023.
“A defense has to be rebuilt every year,” Diaz said. “We do not pick up where we left off a year ago. ... We made our point very clear that it starts again at zero and we have to build it from one to two to three and go on from that. That’s really where our focus has been.”
Diaz leads a unit that has lost several key starters that impacted the 2022 team in a variety of ways.
Safety Ji’Ayir Brown was the undisputed leader of the defense, and arguably the team, but also brought the highest level of safety play to the back line while having the versatility to make an impact rushing the passer and defending the run.
Diaz said that’s tough to replace, but the way Brown played last season opened the eyes of some of the other safeties in the room and made them aspire to take on some of what he vacated.
“Now that (Brown) has done it, the guys love it,” Diaz said. “They can see it. Everybody wants to play his position (in the prowler package). Which is good because you want competition. You want when that third down unit takes the field, the guys that are not on the field, you want them to wish that they were. But there’s a price to admission, right? You’ve got to do the things that 16 did a year ago. When you have a guy like that, that sets the standard, that only helps the other guys understand what it is that we’re talking about. And 16 will show you what it’s supposed to look like.”
Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. — an expected first round pick who was a shutdown corner for the program last season — will be nearly as difficult to replace as Brown, if not more difficult.
Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, they have strong depth at cornerback and could be replacing one lockdown corner with another as Kalen King ascends to being the team’s No. 1 cornerback. Still, he’s not the only player on the depth chart that has a chance to step up in an important way.
Diaz said the group as a whole is ready for the challenge of replacing Porter.
“That position, the first thing is you have to have an edge and a great sense of urgency,” he said. “Nothing creates that more than competition. ... You just can’t be comfortable because it’s the nature of that position. What happened a year ago really doesn’t matter.”
It will help that the defense has a position regarded as a weakness last season that enters this year as a clear strength.
There was plenty of unknown about the team’s linebackers, but a step up from Curtis Jacobs, Abdul Carter’s emergence and solid play on the inside from Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon established a solid baseline during the 2022 season. Now, that same group will look to take a step forward and has two freshmen already on campus helping it grow in Tony Rojas and Ta’Mere Robinson.
“Tony can help us really at either outside linebacker at position,” Diaz said. “We’ve got him focused on one right now. The thing that jumps off is the same thing as the high school tape. It’s speed. He’s got great instincts and awareness for the game. With Ta’Mere, playing inside you still see his athleticism. Such a big guy. ... They’re getting better and better every day. And it’s fun. They’ve got a great personality, they’ve got a great relationship and they’re easy guys to be around.”
Right tackle competition
Across the field, another unit that was questioned heading into last season should be a strength this year. The Nittany Lions’ offensive line imposed its will on players last year, and should only get better this time round. The loss of Juice Scruggs at center will hurt, but the team’s depth on the interior should help fill that void.
Couple that with the return of elite left tackle Olu Fashanu and Drew Shelton pushing Caedan Wallace at right tackle and the path to a higher level is clear.
Franklin said they need to help Wallace improve further.
“I think he’s really motivated,” Franklin said. “He’s really talented. We have to help him take the next step because physically he’s one of the more talented guys I’ve been around. We gotta find a way to help him to take the next step as a player. I think when we do that we could have two of the better tackles, if not three of the better tackles in the country.”
It will help that he’ll be pushed by Shelton, who enters his sophomore year and is switching sides from left tackle to right tackle.
That alone has been an adjustment for him and one Franklin said he’s had to deal with this spring.
“I think it’s been a learning curve for him,” he said. “He’s not as comfortable there. It’s amazing, some guys can make that transition and it doesn’t faze them. You’re in a different stance, your footwork is different. Some guys can flip over there and it doesn’t faze him. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment for him, but I think it’s good. I think it’s been really good for him.”
Gabe Nwosu is leading the kickoff specialist competition, per Franklin.
Franklin said it’s hard to evaluate who is leading at punter because the team has been inside so much and that field goal kicker is still a competition.
Tyler Duzansky is “probably leading the charge” at longsnapper, according to Franklin, after Chris Stoll exhausted his eligibility.