Penn State looks for healthy Castro-Fields to be lockdown corner, lead defensive backfield

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (5) during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

If not for an injury, it’s entirely possible Tariq Castro-Fields would be getting ready to hear his name called next week in the NFL draft.

The Penn State cornerback looked every bit the part of a soon-to-be pro in the first half of last season before an undisclosed ailment took forced him off the field for stretches and affected his play when he was out there.

As it is, Castro-Fields elected to return to the Nittany Lions for his senior season. And regaining his usual form will be key for both him and Penn State.

“We need a lockdown corner that can handle the best receiver of whoever our opponent is. We expect Tariq to be that guy,” Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said Wednesday on a video call with reporters. “Last year was almost like two different seasons. The first half of the season, he came out the gate looking like a first-round draft pick, played very well and then suffered an injury.

“And from that injury on, he was a different player. He wasn’t as confident, he wasn’t as sure of himself because of the injury — not to make an excuse. He knows and recognizes it. We’ve talked about it.”

Tariq Castro-Fields

Castro-Fields becomes Penn State’s most experienced defensive back headed into next season with the graduations of corner John Reid and safety Garrett Taylor.

Lamont Wade — praised by Smith on Wednesday for his leadership — is the secondary’s other returning starter at safety, with Lackawanna College product Jaquan Brisker in line for the other safety job.

At corner, Castro-Fields’ presence is even more important as the Lions work to find Reid’s replacement. Donovan Johnson lost nearly his entire 2019 season to injury, and he’ll battle an impressive crop of second-year players for the starting job.

Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson both did not redshirt last season and played well as true freshmen. They are joined by classmates Joey Porter Jr. and Daequan Hardy, a group that impressed enough to move Trent Gordon from corner to safety this offseason.

“We really feel like we hit it great with all four guys,” Smith said. “Usually when you bring four in, one or two aren’t quite what you thought they were going to be. We feel fantastic with all four of them.

“I feel like all four are going to develop into major contributors for us, whether they’re the starter or not. They’re going to play a lot of football.”

Ideally, those players will have a chance to further gain experience without facing the toughest matchups each week.

That’s where Castro-Fields comes in.

“The big thing with Tariq, obviously he’s the leader of the corner room,’’ Smith said. “We’re looking forward to Tariq having a great offseason. And not to put pressure on him, he needs to have a great year for us.”

New home for wideout: Mac Hippenhammer’s football career at Penn State was already over. Then his baseball days with the Lions were cut short by the pandemic, which ended all of the NCAA’s spring seasons more than a month ago.

But the wide receiver isn’t done on the gridiron. Hippenhammer, who had previously entered his name in the NCAA’s online transfer portal, announced Wednesday he was headed to the MAC to play for Miami (Ohio).

“To the folks who made my time worthwhile in State College, thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Hippenhammer wrote in a social media graphic that showed him in Redhawks football gear. “On to the next part of my life.”

Hippenhammer would have to sit out next season barring an NCAA waiver and would then have one year of eligibility left at his new school as a redshirt senior.

An Indiana native, Hippenhammer was a sought-after recruit in the 2017 signing class, with the Lions having to hold off a push from home state Notre Dame to close the deal.

He redshirted in 2017 and then had a memorable start in 2018 when his first career reception went for a touchdown late in a blowout of rival Pitt.

But he would catch just six more passes in a Penn State uniform, with only one coming last season. He had been a backup in the slot to NFL-bound classmate KJ Hamler and his lone reception in 2019 came against Indiana after Hamler had left the game with an injury.

Hippenhammer is the third Penn State transfer to land at a new school this offseason, joining wideout Justin Shorter (Florida) and defensive end Daniel Joseph (North Carolina State). Running back Ricky Slade is also in the portal.