Carl Nassib. Jordan Lucas. Anthony Zettel. Austin Johnson.
These players became household names last season as pillars of Penn State’s defense — one that finished the 2015 season ranked No. 14 in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But now, they’re gone.
All four players were selected in the 2016 NFL Draft and subsequently signed their pro deals. Additionally, Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for Tennessee after the Nittany Lions’ bowl game and linebackers coach Brent Pry was promoted to the position. Finally, Tim Banks was hired from Illinois as Penn State’s new safeties coach.
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With only one returning starter now on the defensive line and a linebacker unit that’s thin after the transfer of standout Troy Reeder to Delaware, the Nittany Lions will need to get creative with their rotations among each position group and get the remaining talent up to speed — and fast.
Here’s who to watch:
Nyeem Wartman-White is returning to the field after a year spent rehabbing a torn ACL. The fifth-year senior linebacker was slated to lock down Penn State’s second tier as the starting middle linebacker (Mike) before his season ended with the injury in the second quarter of the team’s season opener.
Now, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Wartman-White is almost back to full strength and will either look to edge out starter Jason Cabinda at the Mike slot this fall, or man the weak side (Will) with Cabinda in the middle and Brandon Bell on the strong side. Cabinda, as some fans might recall, approached Shoop on the team bus back from Temple last season after it was realized Wartman-White would be gone for the year, and urged the defensive coordinator to move him into the spot. He won’t give the middle back easily, and it’ll be one of the most intriguing storylines to follow when fall camp starts.
The spotlight on the defensive line is now on Garrett Sickels, the only remaining starter from last season after his three teammates departed for the NFL. Sickels, a 6-foot-4 and 250-pound defensive end from New Jersey, is a quiet, yet reliable anchor around which line coach Sean Spencer can rebuild the rest of the unit.
Evan Schwan certainly has the size to step up as Penn State’s next starting defensive end, opposite Sickels. The senior weighs in at 6-foot-6 and 253 pounds, and recently won the team’s Jim O’Hora award for most improved on defense. He was given the award before April’s Blue-White game, and promptly followed it up with a sack and safety on second-teamer Tommy Stevens as a starter on the first team unit.
Even if Schwan doesn’t pan out as a starter, he’s worth watching for the comedic value alone:
Head coach James Franklin spoke highly of defensive tackle Kevin Givens this spring. Givens is a converted defensive end who will spend most of his time in the three-tech this fall, and has a good chance to start on the line despite his youth — the 6-foot-1, 275-pound Altoona, Pa., native is only a redshirt freshman. Givens also stood out in the Blue-White game, leading the first-team defense with four tackles and two sacks.
Teammates said after the game that Givens is the “strongest guy on the team” and Franklin mentioned that the defensive tackle actually lifted and flipped over the tackling sled during drills.
Penn State is chock-full of young athletes at defensive back — in fact, it’s the only position group on the defense that shouldn’t be worried about depth. Corner John Reid and safety Marcus Allen have been standing out in offseason chatter as two players with great potential this season. Reid, a sophomore brainiac who built his own computer to bring with him to college, was named to ESPN’s All-Freshman team after playing in all 13 games with two starts. He wasn’t the flashiest on the field, but his mental acuteness and quick feet allow him to ball-hawk with the best.
While Troy Apke took over Lucas’ spot at starting safety when the latter got injured last season, Allen is first in line to battle Apke for the position this fall, with the latter recovering from minor shoulder injury. The junior struggled with his tackling technique late in the 2015 season, but tested extremely well this season and has plenty of game experience. Plus, he brings attitude and personality to the spot — a key factor in getting in receivers’ heads — and his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame will lend support against the run.
The Obviously Important
Penn State is, as mentioned earlier, a little too shallow at linebacker for the unit to be fully comfortable in 2016. Aside from the three projected starters, the Nittany Lions only have former walk-on Von Walker and sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen as backups with actual in-game experience.
Both Cooper and Bowen will be crucial this season in the ‘backer rotation, especially if injuries do occur. Incoming freshman Shaka Toney could also be expected to step up, should Penn State have to dip into its young reserves — Toney is listed as a defensive end on the roster but could certainly help out in the second tier.