Penn State defensive ends determined to be best in Big Ten this season

(Centre) Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State defensive ends accounted for 16 sacks in 2017.
  • No player who contributed to that total has left the program.
  • Shareef Miller led PSU's defensive ends with five sacks. Shaka Toney added four sacks.

Penn State has no one but quarterback Trace McSorley on CBS Sports’ 2019 NFL draft big board.

Shareef Miller, right, had five sacks last season for Penn State. AP FILE PHOTO

Shareef Miller didn’t make the top-100 prospects. Neither did Ryan Buchholz, Shaka Toney or Shane Simmons.

That is to be somewhat expected. Individually, they aren’t on the same level as No. 1 overall prospect Nick Bosa or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. There are nine defensive ends on the list — Ohio State’s Bosa and Michigan’s Chase Winovich are the lone Big Ten edge rushers.

Still, Miller, Buchholz, Toney and Simmons — along with sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos and redshirt sophomore Daniel Joseph — believe they’re a part of a special group of pass-rushers at Penn State. Just how special?

“From top to bottom, we’re the best in the Big Ten,” Miller said at Saturday’s media day. “In the country, we’re up there, too, if not the best.”

Added Toney: “I think we are the deepest in the country.”

Compelling argument: The Nittany Lions can conjure a compelling argument.

Penn State defensive ends accounted for 16 sacks in 2017, and no one who contributed to that total has left the program. Miller (five sacks), Toney (four), Joseph (2.5), Buchholz (two), Gross-Matos (1.5) and Simmons (one) all return. Not to mention senior Torrence Brown, whose knee injury will keep him from starting the season, could be back at some point, too.

Colin Castagna is the only departed edge rusher to make a tackle for Penn State last season, and he had as many stops as Saquon Barkley — one. Meanwhile, 15 Power Five teams had at least one defensive end drafted in April. Ohio State alone lost three — Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes — to the NFL.

Depth not a problem: There may be concern about how the Nittany Lions will reload at defensive tackle. But Penn State fans need not worry about the depth at D-end.

“Any of us can go contribute to a double-digit sack game,” Toney said with a half-shrug. “You’re not going to find too many teams that can have three different sets of defensive ends that can go out there and give you big-time production. ... We all can roll out with some punches.”

Lofty sack goal: Toney and his fellow defensive ends are so confident, they expect to lead Penn State to 50 team sacks in 2018. Yes, 50. Across college football, that total has been reached less than a dozen times since 2004, and never by a Big Ten team in that span.

Now, the Nittany Lions have come close. Carl Nassib, a first-team All-American, led Penn State to a 46-sack total in 2015. Penn State followed that up with 40 and 42 sacks in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Spencer wants more: Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer is proud of that three-year run of 40 sacks or more, too. But he, like his players, wants more.

Since his arrival with James Franklin, one of the Spencer’s favorite phrases has been, “No one rises to low expectations.” So he’s happy to see Toney, Miller and more embody that before the season even kicks off. And he knows better than anyone that those six defensive ends can help Penn State hit that 50-sack mark for the first time in at least 20 years.

“I really believe this is the most talented group of defensive ends, from A to Z, since I’ve been here,” Spencer said.

Determined to be elite: His players own that mindset, too.

“Everybody wants to be a starter,” Miller said. “The second-string and third-string are working like they’re first-string. I can’t slack off because I know I have Yetur, I have Shaka, I have such and such. I’ve got to keep working, and they have to keep working. We’re just bringing the best out of everybody.”

Added Toney: “We want to be elite.”