UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Coming into the 2018 season, the defensive line was a question mark, according to Penn State coach James Franklin. With defensive tackle Fred Hansard now out for the season, not only does the question mark return, but depth concerns do, as well.
“Fred will be done for the season. Had to undergo a surgery and will be done for the season,” Franklin said during his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I know all the guys and the families and the coaches and his parents are very, very supportive of Fred, but he will be unavailable for the rest of the season.”
The defensive line is a group that’s been forced to plug in C.J. Thorpe, an offensive lineman, to help with depth issues even before Hansard went down Saturday against Michigan State.
Those depth issues stem from training camp, when two defensive linemen, Ryan Buchholz and Torrence Brown announced their respective retirements from football due to injuries.
Now, it’s going to be up to defensive tackles Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor to not only carry the brunt of the load, snaps-wise, but also teach what is now an even younger unit.
“Those guys have to play bigger roles, there’s no doubt about it. That’s the situation we’re in,” Franklin said. “We feel good about what Kevin and Robert are doing, but they are going to have to help those other guys out, as well.”
It’s going to come down to how well Penn State can develop a defensive tackle group made up of a converted offensive lineman, a sophomore, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman, in addition to Givens and Windsor, both of whom are redshirt juniors.
“We’ve got to keep developing those other guys: P.J. Mustipher, Antonio Shelton, C.J. Thorpe and Damion Barber. We’re going to have to develop those guys,” Franklin said. “Damion is going to have to factor in now and be able to get some work for us. P.J. is going to have to grow up fast. Obviously, he is a true freshman. Antonio Shelton, we’ve seen some good things from him.”
It’s important to note Mustipher already had lost his chance redshirt this year with his appearance against Michigan State and has been largely successful when on the field. The true freshman has eight tackles and at least one tackle in all five games he has appeared.
The unit has benefited from the return of end Shane Simmons, who saw his first action of the season against the Spartans on Saturday. Simmons quickly got acclimated and notched two tackles in a losing effort for the Nittany Lions.
While most of the aforementioned guys have played defensive line at the collegiate level, Thorpe has not. Now that he’s bouncing between the offensive and defensive lines, he must learn a position he hasn’t played since high school, a tough task to learn on the fly.
“C.J., this is all new to him, and we need these young guys and guys that we have moved positions to have a chance to mature and grow up and understand the responsibility and what they need to do for our defense to be successful,” Franklin said.
The defensive line is in good hands with coach Sean Spence, who has been in charge of that unit since coming to Penn State in 2014. He will have the young Nittany Lions prepared for what’s to come as the season continues. Learning and developing on the fly is never easy at the highest level of college football, but if there’s ever a unit that could handle it, it would be the one suiting up for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions will have their next test against an Indiana team averaging 149.7 rushing yards per game entering their match-up Saturday. With a good performance against the Hoosiers, the defensive line will be able to gain confidence and well-needed experience for when it matters most later in the season.