Blue White Illustrated

September 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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S E P T E M B E R 2 0 2 1 9 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M BY MATT HERB MATT@BLUEWHITEONLINE.COM A couple of years ago, when they were recruiting the Class of 2019, Penn State assistants Brent Pry and Sean Spencer traveled to northern New Jersey to watch a young defensive line prospect named Smith Vilbert play basketball. Vilbert had been focused on hoops for most of his high school career and was a raw prospect as a football player. But what the two Nittany Lion coaches saw that night was more than sufficient to convince them that he had a future in their game. "Spence and I came out of the gym- nasium excited," Pry recalled. "We couldn't get over the way he could move and transition at that size." Vilbert, who committed to Penn State in the final weeks of the 2019 recruiting cycle, is now a redshirt sophomore defensive end. At 6-foot- 6, 263 pounds, he has all the physical prerequisites to excel at the position, and after two years on campus he has enough experience to begin making an impact on the field in the season to come. Which is a good thing for Penn State, because it will most likely need him to do just that. One of the main topics of conversation at the Nittany Lions' football media day on Aug. 7 was the defensive end position, where both of last year's starters, Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney, must be replaced. That was going to be a challenge no matter what, but the job got a lot tougher during the offseason with the loss of one projected starter, junior Adisa Isaac, to an undisclosed injury. Coach James Franklin confirmed Isaac's loss at media day. While Franklin stopped short of ruling him out for the entire season, the coach's policy is to talk about injuries only if they are season-ending. The loss of Isaac means that the Lions will be depending on a number of un- proven players to step up at defensive end. That list is headed up by redshirt junior Nick Tarburton, and it also includes Vil- bert, as well as senior Jesse Luketa and redshirt freshmen Amin Vanover and Zu- riah Fisher. Between them, those players have yet to record a sack at the college level. For a variety of reasons, none have been significant contributors to the defensive end rotation at this point in their careers. Tarburton has been slowed by injuries. Luketa has been a full-time linebacker up until now and may still be a part-time linebacker this fall since he's the only ex- perienced player behind Ellis Brooks at the Mike position. Vanover is a swing player who has gone back and forth between the de- fensive end and tackle spots, while Fisher was a linebacker when he ar- rived at Penn State and is a relative newcomer to the defensive line. Having played in nine games to date, including seven tilts last season, Tarburton, a former four-star pros- pect from Green Lane, Pa., appears to have the best chance to start opposite senior Arnold Ebiketie when the Nit- tany Lions open their season Sept. 4 at Wisconsin. "Tarburton is a guy who we've been really excited about since we brought him here," Franklin said. "He's had some situations in terms of staying healthy consistently that made it dif- ficult for him to have a bigger impact. But he's as healthy as he's ever been. "He's been able to practice on a consistent basis now for a long period of time. He's got such a great motor. He's intelligent, and he's physical. We're excited about what he's going to do. Obviously, he's going to see an increased amount of playing time." Luketa, meanwhile, is coming off a junior season in which he played primar- ily at the Will outside linebacker spot. Listed last year at 6-3, 242 pounds, he struggled at times to make plays in space. But his new role this season — he's ei- ther a defensive end who moonlights at middle linebacker or a middle linebacker who moonlights at defensive end — fig- ures to make better use of his skill set while also giving Penn State the ability to camouflage its defense in new and inter- esting ways. "I think there are some things we can do with packages to take advantage of that, where people aren't sure whether he's playing linebacker in our scheme or defensive end," Franklin said. "They won't be certain how they're going to account for him in the running game and how Lions Seek Answers After Injury At Defensive End NEWS & NOTES After playing exclusively at linebacker in his first three years, senior Jesse Luketa is expected to see some action at defensive end this season. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL

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