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Penn State football: Safety quietly becoming strength of 2023 roster

While they haven’t made headlines this spring, the safeties could be a big part of the success for Penn State football in 2023.



Penn State Football
Penn State safety Zakee Wheatley (6) almost comes up with an interception on a pass intended for Marvin Harrison Jr. in the second quarter at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in State College. The Nittany Lions fell to the Buckeyes, 44-31. Hes Dr 102922 Psuosu

James Franklin is expected to field his most talented Penn State football team in quite some time this fall. Key contributors from 2022 return all over the football field this season. Other names, like quarterback Drew Allar, carry the weight of heightened recruiting expectations. 

But possibly one of the most important position groups for Penn State in 2023 has been developing behind the scenes all offseason. While many expect the Nittany Lions’ pass defense to once again be a strength behind veteran playmakers like Kalen King and Johnny Dixon, the Penn State safeties are undergoing a changing of the guard in their own right. And while they haven’t been getting the attention like some of the Lions’ other standouts this spring and summer, the safeties could be a critical part of Penn State football’s success this fall.

Riddled with potential stars, safeties could play a massive role for Penn State football in 2023

In recent years, stars like Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown have turned safety into a position of strength in the defensive backfield. But this offseason, the attention has gone to other stars on the defensive side of the football for Penn State, like Kalen King, Abdul Carter, and Chop Robinson. Even positions like the interior defensive line, highlighted as a potential weak point for the Lions this year, have received attention through moves made in the transfer portal.

Last year, the Penn State pass defense was one of the best in the nation, allowing just over 200 yards per game. One of the few glaring exceptions was the excruciating second-half collapse against Ohio State, where the Nittany Lions allowed over 350 yards through the air. Even as the unit put together a lights-out performance in the second half of the season, the message is clear. Where Penn State wants to go, the difference between success and failure is minuscule.

But safety often feels like the forgotten unit on a defense that allowed 61 points over the final five games of last season. The room doesn’t return a solidified star like Brisker or Brown. Still, it does bring back fifth-year senior Keaton Ellis, a State College native who started all 13 games in 2022 and has already been named a captain for this season.

Across the room, Penn State has talent ready to step to the forefront. Going into summer, the Nittany Lions have four former four-star and two former three-star prospects on its depth chart at safety. Some, like junior Jaylen Reed or redshirt sophomore Zakee Wheatley, have become known with several years worth of contributions under their belt. Others, like sophomore KJ Winston, are looking to burst onto the scene. But overall, the safeties feel confident in the playmaking ability of everyone in the room.

“…we just want to make each other better and compete,” Winston told Basic Blues Nation following April’s Blue-White Game. “Everybody looks at each other the same. We all want to compete. No matter who it is, we know whoever’s on the field is going to make a play.”

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A third-generation Penn Stater, Matt is Editor-in-Chief for Basic Blues Nation, co-host of the podcast PSU Tailgate Talk, and a credentialed member of the Penn State football media. Matt also works as a staffer in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Matt lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and a small army of pets.