Penn State spring football preview: Cornerbacks and safeties

Penn State is normally known as “Linebacker U,” but recently their secondary players have been making waves at the NFL level.

In recent years, Adrian Amos, Nick Scott and Jaquan Brisker have all been featured in prominent roles at the next level. Now, Joey Porter Jr. is expected to be the highest Penn State secondary player ever taken in the NFL Draft and Ji'Ayir Brown is climbing up draft boards.

The current 2023 roster has a bunch of playmakers as well. This will be an experienced group overall and should have a major impact on the success of Penn State’s defense this season.

The headliner in the group is cornerback Kalen King. He was a bit overshadowed by Porter Jr. last season, but it’s now his time to shine. Others in the secondary should become a household name this season as well.

Here are some names to watch as spring practices start.

Kalen King

Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables: 5’11” / 185 lbs.

Year: Junior

Expected Role: Starting cornerback

Kalen King is a flat out star. While overshadowed by the bigger name of Joey Porter Jr., he put together an elite season last year. His PFF grade of 89.0 was 8th best out of 916 corners.

He is expected to be one of the most impactful players on the defense and might be the best player in the program. He showed how good he was in a primary role during the Rose Bowl. If King continues to play like he did last season, Penn State is in good hands at starting cornerback.

Johnny Dixon

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables: 6’0″ 190 lbs.

Year: Redshirt Senior

Expected Role: Starting cornerback

Johnny Dixon will have some big shoes to fill this season. The former South Carolina transfer is expected to win the starting role during the spring and summer to play opposite of King.

In the two season he’s been at Penn State, Dixon improved his PFF grade by 10 points. He ranked 260th out of 916 corners in 2022-23, recording 23 total tackles, 10 passes defended and two interceptions. There is potential that this could be a position battle to watch in the spring and summer as James Franklin brought in a transfer cornerback from North Carolina.

NEXT: The expected starters at safety

Keaton Ellis

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables: 5’11” / 189 lbs.

Year: Redshirt Senior

Expected Role: Starting Strong Safety

Keaton Ellis was the starter last season and is expected to hold onto this role coming into the year. He had an interesting season in 2022-23 and didn’t play up to his previous standard. Ellis had a grade of 61.4, which put him 574th out of 783 safeties.

He recorded 24 total tackles and seven passes defended. There is an expectation that the safety position will be a platooned role in 2023 like it was last year. Multiple players are expected to rotate in and out of the field. But there has to be one starter and Ellis is expected to be that guy.

Kevin Winston

Measurables: 6’2″ / 200 lbs.

Year: Sophomore

Expected Role: Starting Free Safety

Coming into Penn State, Kevin Winston had some high expectations about what he could become. He was a four-star recruit according to 247Sports with great athleticism and size.

Winston wasn’t used a lot his freshman year outside of special teams. It will be interesting to see if he can make the leap to full time safety considering his lack of live reps on the field. Since the safety position will most likely have multiple players rotating in and out during games, that will help Winston ease into the role. This is definitely a position to keep an eye on during the spring and summer to see who gets the official starting nod.

NEXT: Who anchors the nickel?

Daequan Hardy

Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables: 5’9″ / 179 lbs.

Year: Redshirt Senior

Expected Role: Starting Nickel Cornerback

Daequan Hardy will firmly be holding down the inside cornerback slot for Penn State this season. He’s been productive in this role recording 28 total tackles, 10 passes defended and three interceptions the past two seasons.

He’s proven that this is the position he does best in and won’t be expected to play outside the numbers. Barring any injury, Hardy will be the sole nickel cornerback for the Nittany Lions.

NEXT: A key transfer addition adding depth

Storm Duck

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables: 6’0″ / 200 lbs.

Year: Redshirt Senior

Expected Role: Backup Cornerback

Storm Duck is transferring in from North Carolina where he had a productive season last year. He recorded 46 total tackles, 9 passes defended and three interceptions. His 68.0 PFF grade ranked 453rd out of 916 corners.

This is great experience and production for Penn State to add through the portal. Duck is a proven player, earning second-team All-ACC last year. The major concerns surrounding him are his health as he’s battle injury for a couple of seasons in his career. Duck and Dixon are expected to battle it out for the starting cornerback spot this offseason.

NEXT: Young safeties on the rise

Zakee Wheatley

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables: 6’2″ / 190 lbs.

Year: Redshirt Sophomore

Expected Role: Backup Safety

It’s interesting projecting Zakee Wheatley to be in a backup role this season. He showed flashes of production last year, recording 27 tackles, picking off two passes and forcing a fumble. However, his 64.8 overall PFF grade left something to be desired.

Wheatley struggled in pass coverage despite his two interceptions. Despite his slight frame, he graded out well in run defense which is a good sign. It’s expected that Wheatley and Winston will battle for the starting safety role throughout the offseason. Even if he doesn’t win that battle, he will certainly be on the field as part of the platoon this year.

Jaylen Reed

The Herald-Times

Measurables6’0″ / 208 lbs.

Year: Junior

Expected Role: Backup Safety

Jaylen Reed actually had more snaps than starting safety Ellis last season. He’s projected in the backup role because his upside is limited compared to the others at the position. Reed was most effective in run defense last season. He recorded 31 total tackles and two of them were for loss.

Where he struggles is in pass defense. His PFF coverage grade of 56.6 ranked 637th out of 770 safeties. There is certainly a role for Ellis on this team. He’s a run-stopping safety and will play a huge part in stifling the run for Penn State. The hope is other safeties on the roster can shoulder the coverage load so Ellis can focus on his strength of run defense.

NEXT: Young corners to watch on the rise

Cam Miller

Measurables: 6’0″ / 181 lbs.

Year: Sophomore

Expected Role: Backup Cornerback

It’s not expected that Cam Miller will be competing for the starting role this season. He appeared in 11 games last season but had a small role overall. He came into Penn State as a four-star recruit in the 247Sports database.

There is optimism that Miller can grow into a very solid player at Penn State and potentially be drafted in the NFL. It will be great for him to learn from King and the other experience in this secondary. He will definitely see the field this season and get more live reps.

Elliot Washington

Measurables: 6’0″ / 195 lbs.

Year: Freshman

Expected Role: Backup Cornerback

Elliot Washington had to be highlighted when discussing the secondary. The true freshman is an exciting prospect out of Florida. He received 28 offers from schools around the country, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State.

247Sports had Washington as a four-star recruit in the 2023 class. He enrolled early and has been on campus with the team. He’s expected to make a real run at the fourth cornerback position this offseason. The battle between Washington and Miller for that spot will be one to keep an eye on.

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Story originally appeared on Nittany Lions Wire