Can Penn State reload its pass rush? Why was transfer CB help needed? Snap count breakdown (2024)

Penn State coach James Franklin wanted to hire a defensive coordinator who had realistic expectations about what he could do with a defense that was one of the best in college football all of last season. Realistically, the next coordinator wasn’t going to be able to greatly elevate a group that was superb in 2023.

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So, in comes former Indiana head coach Tom Allen, who inherits a defense that returns Abdul Carter and Dani Dennis-Sutton and two senior defensive tackles and has already added two intriguing cornerbacks from the transfer portal. There’s a strong core to build around, but there’s also a lot of production and experience that’s gone.

Last week, I sifted through the season-long snap counts for the offense, as tracked by TruMedia. Snap counts help shed light on whom the coaches trust most to be on the field and help outline realistically how many players are involved in certain rotations. Today is all about the defense and what the 2023 snap count totals just might teach us about this roster in 2024.

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1. Replacing Robinson and Isaac

Penn State viewed defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton as a co-starter alongside NFL-bound pass rushers Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac. Dennis-Sutton ended up playing more snaps (429) than Isaac (387) and Robinson, who dealt with an injury that limited him to 298 snaps. Penn State knows what it has in Dennis-Sutton, who might be the top player on this defense next season. The question is: Who lines up opposite him?

The depth at defensive end looks like it is going to be drastically different next season. Zuriah Fisher (229 snaps) played the most after the previously listed top three. Amin Vanover (136) and Jameial Lyons (90) will be competing with him for that starting spot. The forgotten man in all this is Smith Vilbert, who enters his final season. Vilbert missed last season due to injury and was unavailable for the entirety of the 2022 regular season for an undisclosed reason. At this point, he last played sparingly in the Rose Bowl against Utah and before that had his three-sack performance in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 2022. That’s a long span to only play two games. What impact, if any, Vilbert has on this roster will be a question to dig into this offseason.

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Penn State signed freshman defensive end Jaylen Harvey (6-2, 250), who enrolled in January, and as Lyons did this past season, there could be a path to early playing time for Harvey if he’s ready.

2. The most-used player on defense still isn’t tapped out

Carter’s 573 snaps were the most recorded by any defender. It was also 53 snaps more than the next closest player, which was safety Jaylen Reed (520). Even when Carter was limited in the Peach Bowl, he was out there. His durability has been and will continue to be key for this defense long-term. There’s much for Allen to like about Carter’s versatile usage, and it’s worth noting Carter could also help this defense by rushing the passer more — if it is asked of him.

With linebacker Curtis Jacobs (440 snaps) preparing for the NFL, the linebacking corps will need sophom*ore Tony Rojas to step into a bigger role. Rojas played 112 snaps on defense and was instrumental on special teams. Here’s how the linebacking corps shook out beyond Carter and Jacobs:

  • Kobe King (382 snaps)
  • Dom DeLuca (240)
  • Tyler Elsdon (169)
  • Tony Rojas (112)
  • Keon Wylie (95)
  • Kaveion Keys (7)
  • Ta’Mere Robinson (7)

Can Penn State reload its pass rush? Why was transfer CB help needed? Snap count breakdown (2)

DT Dvon Ellies will be back for a sixth season. (Matthew O’Haren / USA TODAY)

3. Depth returns at DT

The return of Hakeem Beamon and Dvon Ellies for one more season is one of those under-the-radar yet important offseason wins for Penn State. By my count, the Nittany Lions have 13 defensive tackles on scholarship. Four of them are incoming freshmen. Penn State also has four tackles it trusts most, and that core group is Beamon (330 snaps), Zane Durant (316 snaps), Ellies (299 snaps) and Coziah Izzard (248 snaps). The drop-off after those four is significant. Jordan van den Berg played 148 snaps, and Kaleb Artis (38), Davon Townley Jr. (17) and Ty Blanding (3) were the only other tackles to play.

Keep in mind when players elect to return or move on, a lot of that has to do with whether the coaching staff wants those players back. Penn State knows what it has with Beamon and Ellies, and until some of those freshmen are ready — which likely will take a year or two for most of them — it can rely on these four players once again. Among the four freshmen DTs is early enrollee Liam Andrews, who will be someone to keep an eye on in the coming years. He enrolled in January, and though he’s currently listed at 6-4, 260, they likely will need him to be a key contributor in 2025 when Ellies and Beamon will be out of eligibility.

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4. Don’t look for much to change at safety

Reed and Kevin Winston Jr. cemented their roles as starting safeties and played the second- and third-most snaps on the defense. Reed (520 snaps) and Winston (491) became mainstays and Zakee Wheatley (246 snaps) was the top safety in rotation, but with Winston and Reed playing as much as they did there wasn’t always a ton of rotating going on. Keaton Ellis, who is out of eligibility, had his role decrease as the season went on and finished with 223 snaps. King Mack’s 65 snaps during his freshman season were a notable development and he figures to push for a bigger role in 2024.

But unless something happens to the starters it’d be difficult to see Penn State getting away from those two too much. The breakdown for the rest of the safeties:

  • Tyrece Mills (34 snaps)
  • Mehki Flowers (28)
  • DaKaari Nelson (3)

5. Transfers key to cover losses at corner

Penn State’s plan for replacing 1,364 defensive snaps among the top three cornerbacks boils down to what AJ Harris and Jalen Kimber can add. Though it’s a less-than-ideal situation for Penn State to be in — with Kalen King, Johnny Dixon and Daequan Hardy all moving on — the staff deserves a lot of credit for having a plan in the transfer portal and being able to execute it. These are three significant departures with Dixon (487), King (467) and Hardy (410) playing the fourth-, fifth- and eighth-most snaps among the defense. Cam Miller (313 snaps) will need to hang on to a starting job, and Harris, formerly a five-star prospect who played his freshman year at Georgia, and Kimber, a senior, will compete for starting roles and starter-type reps.

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Typically, Penn State plays with at least five cornerbacks available. Rather than going into next season with a nucleus of Miller, Zion Tracy and Elliot Washington II (the latter two burned redshirts last season), Penn State recognized it needed more experience and dipped into the SEC for it. Harris could end up being one of Penn State’s top portal additions ever when all is said and done, but there’s a long way to go before declaring that. For now, it’s a promising addition. And, because he’s in the same class as Tracy and Washington, that trio becomes a potentially strong group to build around in coming years.

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6. Which freshman played the most?

Tracy’s 138 defensive snaps were the most for his class, and Rojas, the linebacker, had the second most on defense.

Among the five freshmen who played the most snaps in 2023, four of them were on defense: Tracy, Rojas, Lyons and Washington. The freshman who played the most snaps on offense was offensive lineman Anthony Donkoh, who was credited with 92 offensive snaps.

(Top photo of Abdul Carter and Jameial Lyons: G Fiume / Getty Images)

Can Penn State reload its pass rush? Why was transfer CB help needed? Snap count breakdown (5)Can Penn State reload its pass rush? Why was transfer CB help needed? Snap count breakdown (6)

Audrey Snyder has covered Penn State since 2012 for various outlets, including The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Patriot-News and DKPittsburghSports. Snyder is an active member of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) and is the professional adviser for Penn State’s student chapter. Follow Audrey on Twitter @audsnyder4

Can Penn State reload its pass rush? Why was transfer CB help needed? Snap count breakdown (2024)
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