Penn State Football Media Day: Defense Takeaways
College football training camp is officially underway for the 2018 season. James Franklin will enter his fifth season as the man in charge at Penn State with Brent Pry returning for his third season as defensive coordinator. With exactly four weeks to go until the Nittany Lions kickoff in front of 107,000 fans at Beaver Stadium against Appalachian State, here were the top storylines gathered from media day:
1. Manny Bowen back on the roster
Arguably the top storyline entering fall camp was whether or not dismissed linebacker Manny Bowen would be back on the roster. A not so subtle Instagram post from Bowen last month prompted speculation that he had rejoined the team, but Franklin offered no indications whether or not that was the case at Big Ten Media Days last week. Penn State fans finally got their answer Saturday morning as it was confirmed that Bowen has officially been reinstated to the program.
“We created some stipulations for [Bowen] to achieve from the time he left the program,” Franklin said. “If he lived up to his end of the bargain then he would have an opportunity to earn his way back on the roster…we felt that this plan was going to give him the best opportunity to graduate in December.”
Franklin added that he was surprised Bowen wanted to follow this plan since the easier route would have been to transfer.
Regardless, Penn State’s biggest question all offseason has been who will replace Jason Cabinda at the middle linebacker (MIKE) position. Bowen returns as the most experienced and productive member of the Nittany Lions’ current linebacker corps and should provide a monumental boost to the middle of the Penn State defense provided he can return to form.
Bowen missed the team’s final three regular-season games in 2017 due to a violation of unspecified team rules and was subsequently removed from the roster prior to the Fiesta Bowl. Over nine games he compiled 51 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
He also started 12 games as a sophomore en route to Penn State’s Big Ten championship in 2016, but he was also suspended for the Rose Bowl. He finished that season with 68 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Both Franklin and Pry did not elaborate on what Bowen’s role with the team would be this season. Pry added that Bowen has been a great mentor to the younger linebackers since returning to the team but is “not planning on Bowen right now.”
While Franklin and Pry were both noncommittal as to what Bowen’s future holds, it’s hard to believe that Bowen will not be a significant contributor this fall if he continues to hold his end of the bargain.
2. Questions remain at MIKE linebacker
Bowen is probably the top returning Penn State linebacker in terms of experience and production, but for now his role is still to be determined. That being said, the Nittany Lions still must resolve the void that Cabinda left in the middle of the defense.
Among the other candidates to assume that role are redshirt junior Jan Johnson and redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks.
Johnson has appeared in just seven games for the Nittany Lions, but Franklin and Pry have both praised Johnson’s high football IQ,
“[Johnson] is very physical and tough and has done a great job of growing into his position,” Pry said. “He’s got great size and has really improved his reads.”
Brooks, on the other hand, has yet to play a down of college football but was a four-star recruit and the sixth-ranked inside linebacker in the 2016 recruiting class, according to ESPN and Rivals. He has tremendous athleticism and has great long-term potential at the position.
“The biggest thing that came out of spring ball for me was learning how to control the defense and be demonstrative when I’m giving calls – just learning the ins and outs of the defense,” Brooks said.
Brooks’ athleticism may actually be best suited at one of the outside linebacker spots as his career progresses. True freshman Jesse Luketa is another high upside player at the middle linebacker spot who could potentially benefit from the NCAA’s new redshirt rule. However, it is unlikely that he will become the primary starter at that spot this season.
Penn State could also opt to move more experienced players like Koa Farmer and Cam Brown inside, but Johnson or Brooks seems like a better long-term fit for this season.
3. Reloading in the secondary
Much has been made about Penn State losing all four starters in the secondary from last year’s team, each of whom is now on NFL rosters. However, the coaching staff believes that the back end of this year’s defense will still be a strength despite the turnover in personnel.
“We’re very explosive and run very well,” Pry said. “We’ve got a group of guys who are very determined and focused, and the competition has made everyone better.”
Amani Oruwariye and John Reid are the frontrunners to start at the two cornerback spots. Oruwariye was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection last season, leading the team with four interceptions, despite seeing a backup role to Grant Haley and Christian Campbell.
Reid, on the other hand, missed all of 2017 with a knee injury, but he was arguably Penn State’s top cover corner in 2016.
Sophomore Tariq Castro-Fields is a talented defensive back that should provide depth at the position. As a true freshman he played in 12 of 13 games and was named to Pro Football Focus’ Big Ten Team of the Week for his performance against Michigan State.
Nick Scott will likely man the free safety spot. Scott will be a team captain for the second year in a row and brings plenty of experience to the back of Penn State’s defense.
“I don’t think there has been any drop off with the confidence in the secondary because we have guys with plenty of game experience,” Scott said. “We also have a tremendous amount of talent in the room so the competition in the room is through the roof.”
The strong safety spot is a bigger question mark, but the Nittany Lions will have a plethora of viable options to choose from. Redshirt juniors Ayron Monroe and Garrett Taylor are the top candidates to start, and sophomore Lamont Wade brings plenty of versatility.
“We lost a couple good players at the safety spots, but again we feel good about the group of guys we have now,” Pry said. “[Scott] brings a lot of experience…Garrett Taylor’s preparation has been outstanding, and Ayron Monroe is very talented, fast and athletic, and then Lamont Wade is just a tough, explosive guy. The more reps he gets, the more he shows us.”
4. Added motivation
The Penn State offense is expected to remain one of the most explosive units in college football. Conversely, the defense returns just three starters and has many more question marks.
Despite all the noise Pry believes his unit has a great opportunity to be even better than last year’s defense, which ranked seventh in the nation in points allowed.
“We’re very excited about these guys,” Pry said. “We took five magazine quotes about losing eight starters, not having any strength in the middle, that we can’t be as good as last year, and we got those plastered in our defensive meeting room.”
Penn State has been historically known for its great defense over the years. Franklin acknowledges that this year’s defense may have the most preseason question marks of any team in his five-year tenure at Penn State.
But the young talent is abundant and ready to explode. If Pry’s defense can resolve these question marks, there is plenty of reason to believe Pry will field another outstanding unit.