'We're depending on them.' Can two Penn State defenders lead spring recovery?
Penn State's defense, traditionally one of the best in the Big Ten, will require a significant makeover before the fall.
From the defensive line to linebacker to safety. Even the guy leading it all is brand new.
That's why so much is expected of two players who missed all of last season − hopeful but unknown quantities − to return in full-force to keep the Nittany Lions pushing toward division leaders Ohio State and Michigan.
It starts with this spring with Adisa Isaac and Hakeem Beamon.
Head coach James Franklin said as much during Monday's press conference to open spring workouts, which lead to the annual Blue-White Game scrimmage on April 23. It will be the only full-scale, full-team workouts until preseason camp in August.
Their first true training under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Isaac and Beamon, both promising young pass rushers two years ago, did not play a game snap during last season's disappointing slide. Isaac suffered an undisclosed injury before summer drills; Beamon was held out of games for undisclosed reasons.
But they will be first-up to replace the star power and production missing from graduating seniors Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa. The pair combined for a stunning 26.5 tackles for loss last season to help keep the Lions from sinking. Ebiketie, a transfer, was one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises with 9.5 sacks.
"We're depending on them," Franklin said of Isaac and Beamon. "Hopefully, they continue heading in the right direction, physically and in other areas. This spring is going to be really important for them.
"I think everybody in this room was really excited about Adisa Isaac and what he was going to do last year. That was a significant loss," Franklin said. "Having him back this year, we’re approaching this thing slow and conservative to make sure he’s ready to go."
Isaac, who combined for three sacks his first two college seasons, should be close to 100 percent health in the spring, Franklin said. He looks the part of Penn State's next-great edge rusher, following Ebiketie, Yetur Gross-Matos and Carl Nassib.
Isaac figures to be one of the two starting defensive ends, possibly opposite senior Nick Tarburton, when the season opens at Purdue. Beamon, meanwhile, continues to add weight and strength to lock in at defensive tackle. He had 1.5 sacks and seven tackles two years ago. He flashed impressive strength and possibilities in a small sample size, much like Isaac.
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Both players will be helped by the return of senior defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher, an expected team captain. He was lost halfway through the 2021 season with a knee injury.
"I’m proud of Hakeem. He's really growing up and maturing," Franklin said. "I try to hug him and love on him as much as I possibly can, but it's also one of those fine lines, too. I want to make sure Hakeem stays on the trajectory that he’s on right now."
They could benefit from some unexpected help up front, too. True freshman Zane Durant, from Florida, has impressed with his strength and quickness in early training sessions and with a quick adaptation to college life. At just 6-foot-1, he's already drawing physical comparisons to former Nittany Lion defensive tackle Kevin Givens.
"Not the tallest guy but powerful and strong and explosive," Franklin said. "He's putting on size, he's above 265 (pounds) already ... If he keeps trending the way he is now I think he’s going to have a chance to compete for playing time at d-tackle as a true freshman, which is unusual."
The Lions' rebuilt line must work well with an even more uncertain linebacker corps. Rising star Curtis Jacobs will hold down one outside position with the crucial middle spot a spring battle, for now, between redshirt freshman Kobe King and unproven backup Tyler Elsdon.
The third linebacker may well be a hybrid spot under Diaz, combining safety and linebacker duties. Sixth-year senior Jonathan Sutherland, mostly a special teams standout so far, seems the best fit there so far.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.