How good can Penn State's defense be under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz?

Jon Sauber
Centre Daily Times (TNS)

Penn State's defense has led the way for the Nittany Lions over the last few seasons and should once again be one of the best units in the Big Ten.

The group should be able to create advantages all over the field and in every aspect of the game thanks to the talent level in the trenches and the secondary. There are no real weaknesses across those eight positions and new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz should be able to get creative in his first year with the program thanks to the unit's talent level. We've broken down every position on defense thus far heading into 2022 and already looked at what the offense can do.

Now let's close out our depth chart breakdown series by looking at the unit that will carry the Nittany Lions in the 2022 season.

Rushing defense: There was a clear hole on the interior of the defensive line last season for Penn State that allowed opponents to run the ball with relative ease in the second half of the season. Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher missed that portion of the year due to a leg injury but is now back and ready to resume his role as a force on the line.

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Mustipher is the strongest run defender in the front four for Penn State and does a good job of plugging gaps to free up his teammates while also disengaging and making plays in the running game when he's able. His sheer size and strength will be necessary for the line, with the other options alongside him at defensive tackle presenting much less size. Mustipher will have to do most of the dirty work on the interior, while relying on Nick Tarburton and Adisa Isaac on the outside to contribute. Tarburton's nonstop motor will help him in that regard, but the line's role will really be about freeing up the linebackers.

Curtis Jacobs and Jonathan Sutherland have both played the run well in the past, relying on different skills to do so. Jacobs is an instinctual player who can get into the backfield with his high football IQ and athleticism allowing him to make plays. Sutherland previously played at safety, relying on his physicality and strength to make plays against the run. While those two can both be positives against the run, the team's third starter should be the key for the run defense.

Both Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon are excellent run defenders who should play plenty of snaps. We projected King to start, and the physicality he brings, along with his ability to diagnose the play in front of him, should make him a major contributor against the run.

At the third level of the defense, Daequan Hardy can make splash plays from the slot, while Ji'Ayir Brown is excellent at stepping up and making tackles to prevent teams from creating big gains.

Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher (97) celebrates after tackling Indiana running back Stephen Carr (5) in the first half of their NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Passing defense: Penn State's pass defense should be the best part of the unit, which is saying something considering how good the run defense should be.

We'll start at the secondary because of the team's lack of weaknesses there. On the outside, Joey Porter Jr. has the upside to be a first round pick and a lockdown corner if he can do away with his penalty issues. He has a tendency to hold onto receiver and get called for interference because he plays the receiver rather than the ball. Kalen King could be just as good as his fellow outside corner in the long run and there's reason to believe he'll take another step this season after contributing as a true freshman.

Between those two on the outside — who are more than capable of sticking with most wide receivers — and Hardy as one of the best nickel corners in the Big Ten in the slot, this should be a very good cornerback group. Add in Brown and potential breakout Zakee Wheatley at safety and the secondary could be special. Those are five players who could all be all-conference selections this season if everything breaks right.

Up front, things are less certain but have similar upside. Mustipher and Tarburton aren't as big of contributors against the pass, but Isaac and Hakeem Beamon are even better in those situations. Isaac is coming off a torn Achilles but players and coaches alike have said he looks like his old self over a year after the injury occurred. Beamon is undersized but uses that as an advantage against interior offensive linemen to get leverage. He combines that with his quickness and hand usage to get after the quarterback from the interior. Mix in Chop Robinson as a supremely talented transfer addition on the edge and suddenly you're looking at a group that will be chasing quarterbacks all season long.

Not to mention, Jacobs is an elite blitzer from the second level as well.

Outlook: This defense is elite. Point blank, it should be one of the best units in the country and will give the Nittany Lions a chance in every game they play this season. The best opponents will always get theirs because of the nature of college football and how offenses tend to have an advantage. That being said, there will be moments this season where fans wonder if this is the best defense of the James Franklin era.

You could list the leaders of the group, but in all reality that list is too long. Over half of the defense could turn a game at a moment's notice or put on one of the most dominant performances of the season. Diaz may only be in State College for a year — because he might be right back in the head coaching ranks after leading what should be a top-five defense in the country.

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