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Penn State football: 2023 Blue-White game defensive players to watch

Watch out for these rising stars to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball this season.



Penn State football
Penn State football practice; April 11th, 2023. Credit: Gracie Carella//Basic Blues Nation

A season ago, Penn State football had one of the best defenses in the country. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz struck the perfect balance of bend-but-don’t-break and aggressiveness in his play calling. Seasoned veterans crescendoed, and newcomers burst onto the scene. But now, the defense begins anew. While there are many familiar names returning this season, the Penn State Blue-White Game on Saturday is a prime opportunity for supporting players to step into a new role and for new faces to make themselves known.

Penn State Blue-White Game defensive players to watch

Statistically, Penn State ranked 17th in total defense and 10th in points allowed last season. When it came to forcing turnovers, the Nittany Lions shined. Manny Diaz knew just the right moments to turn up the heat on opponents.

The 2023 defense loses some big-time names from a year ago including Joey Porter Jr, Ji’Ayir Brown, and PJ Mustipher. Defensive line coach John Scott also left for a job with the Detroit Lions. But there is still a lot of solid returning talent, and James Franklin promoted Deion Barnes to take over at defensive line, a much-celebrated hire.

You already know the established veterans. Here are three names to watch during the Penn State football Blue-White Game and to keep tabs on as we head toward the fall.

Jaylen Reed

With Ji’Ayir Brown heading to the NFL, one of the two safety spots is up for grabs. Junior Jaylen Reed looks to land that spot, but he will have to fight off some competition from sophomore Kevin Winston.

Reed burned his redshirt in 2021 appearing in eight games. He took on an increased role a year ago as a backup but appeared in all 13 games. He posted 31 tackles, two tackles for loss, and three passes defended. Unfortunately for Reed, an injury suffered in Penn State’s Rose Bowl victory required surgery. However, Reed told the media last week that the surgery didn’t slow his offseason progress at all. We’ll see if Reed will be limited in the Blue-White Game, but expect him to be ready to go for fall camp.

Zane Durant

The defensive tackle position is one that Franklin and Diaz are focused on this off-season. While the Nittany Lions have some great returning talent with Hakeem Beamon and Dvon Ellies, a star in the making could be Zane Durant.

Durant burned his redshirt a year ago, appearing in all 13 games. He recorded five tackles and one sack. While those stats do not pop, expect that to change this season. Durant has beefed up his body, now listed at 276 pounds. With a wider frame and a more focused demeanor, Durant looks up to the challenge. Filling the shoes of PJ Mustipher will certainly be a collective effort by all the tackles. However, Durant is a name to be watched for a breakout star in 2023.

Tony Rojas

If you are looking for a true freshman to make a big splash for Penn State this season, look no further than linebacker Tony Rojas. The four-star Virginia product has already turned heads during spring practice. The fact that he enrolled early in January and has already put on nearly 30 pounds of good weight while still maintaining his speed is a great sign.

The competition is tough for Penn State football at linebacker as there are five veterans back. Curtis Jacobs and Abdul Carter have their starting jobs pretty much locked down. However, a year ago Carter earned All-American honors as a freshman, and Rojas could be in line for a similar fate. He most likely will factor into the rotation this fall and could be the first freshman to burn his redshirt. His teammates have been wowed in practice, and now the Blue-White game will be Rojas’s first chance to win over the fans.

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Shane has been a Penn State fan since he attended his first game in Beaver Stadium when he was 8 years old. A Class of 2005 alum, he has been a contributing writer for Victory Bell Rings, Saturday Blitz and now Basic Blues Nation. He also hosts The Nittany and Badger: A Big Ten Football Podcast. Shane lives near Pittsburgh with his wife and son.


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