Spring has finally sprung and with it comes a little football. Penn State is one week into their first week of spring practice and the expectations surrounding the team are as high as ever. A Rose Bowl defeat only served to strengthen expectations moving forward and by all accounts, the 2017 Nittany Lions are hungry for more. A handful have moved on and new faces are in line to replace them, but the core group of players that led Penn State to a Big Ten Championship back in December have returned to defend their title and enter the chase for a spot in the playoffs. Today, we begin a two-part series and look at who’s who on the roster as we head towards the Blue-White game in April.
We begin with a unit that was decimated by injury early in the fall, but recovered well enough to wear offenses down and cripple them as games wore on: The Defense. Garrett Sickels, Brandon Bell, Evan Schwan, and Malik Golden have all moved on and leave big shoes to fill. The good news is, after an era of struggling with a depleted roster and low numbers, there is no shortage of players eager to fill them. On the D-Line, a.k.a. the “Wild Dogs” coach, Sean Spencer, has a full cupboard to impose his motivation on. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller return and appear to be strong candidates to replace the void Sickels and Schwan leave behind at defensive end. Ryan Buchholz made his presence felt in 2016 as well and will be a major player in the rotation. As for new faces, Shaka Toney received rave reviews from the scout team last season and everyone is anxiously anticipating the debut of the highly-touted Shane Simmons who was a one-man wrecking crew in high school. Redshirt freshman Daniel Joseph is also expected to provide depth as a pass rusher.
Inside at defensive tackle, Penn State has the luxury of returning its entire rotation from a year ago, with the exception of Antoine White, who has since transferred. Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran are both seniors with plenty of experience under their belts in the trenches. Kevin Givens, nicknamed “Beast,” lived up to his billing at times, as did Robert Windsor; both turned heads this time last year. Colin Castagna, Tyrell Chavis and Antonio Shelton provide depth, and redshirt freshman, Ellison Jordan, appears ready to throw his name in the hat as well. True freshman, Fred Hansard, will ideally redshirt but if the injury bug hits, his size provides an option.
At linebacker it all begins and ends with the leader of the defense and recently anointed (along with Trace McSorley and Nick Scott) team captain, senior Jason Cabinda. A four-year starter, Cabinda has been a warrior in the middle and with one year left, will look to add to his growing legacy. The graduation of Brandon Bell has left a major void on the outside, but everyone else returns from last year. Manny Bowen and Cam Brown are the most likely candidates to start alongside Cabinda, but keep an eye on Koa Farmer who came on strong during passing downs as the year wore on. Former walk-on, Brandon Smith, who filled in like a champ while Cabinda nursed an injury, returns as does Jake Cooper whose season ended prematurely with his arm in a sling. Both are in line to backup Cabinda as needed on the inside. Jarvis Miller has moved from safety to OLB and is a name to watch as spring practice progresses. Early enrollee Brelin Faison-Walden has been on campus since January and could find himself in the mix as well. If injury strikes again as it did early last season, incoming freshmen Braylin Franklin and Ellis Burks could get their feet wet earlier than expected.
In the secondary, Malik Golden has moved on, but four-year starter Marcus Allen returns to knock heads and roam the field just as he's done since he was thrust into the fray halfway through his freshman season. Who plays beside Allen in 2017 is yet to be decided, but former running back turned safety, Nick Scott, has positioned himself to make a strong case to fill Golden's vacancy, as has redshirt freshman Ayron Monroe. Troy Apke, who has seen plenty of action himself already, and John Petrishan are expected to provide solid depth. At cornerback, a position that has been a major focus of replenishment over the past few years, ballhawks John Reid and Grant Haley return and are locked in as starters. Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye saw a ton of playing time a year ago and youngsters Garrett Taylor and Zech McPhearson are looking to add their names to the mix. Already on campus and already turning heads at practice is true freshman Lamont Wade who will see the field one way or another in 2017; at corner, on offense, in the return game, or some combination of all three. He's that good folks.
Early on one year ago, the injury bug hit the Nittany Lion defense and it hit hard. As we all know, at one point the defense was missing five LB's as they struggled against Michigan. Defensive coordinator and linebacker coach turned in a masterful and highly underrated job of keeping that D competitive until the starters returned. The silver lining as the year wore on was the game experience gained by the backups. Brandon Smith became a household name. Koa Farmer turned into a force on the outside edge. Manny Bowen and Cam Brown were forced to grow up fast. That adversity helped lead Penn State to a Big Ten Championship. Giving up 51 in the Rose Bowl stung and left a bad taste on a D that had been known to stiffen late in the game. With spring in full swing, you can bet your bottom dollar the Nittany Lions are hard at work and aiming to make life miserable on opposing offenses this year.