On April 6, James Franklin told reporters that Penn State was in pursuit of an edge rusher via the transfer portal.
Six days later, former Maryland defensive end Chop Robinson was a Nittany Lion.
Robinson, along with Adisa Isaac, who missed the entirety of last season with a torn Achilles, are set to lead a new-look pass rushing unit this fall, loaded with depth and potential.
“We are a different animal at defensive end than we were in the spring,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said at Saturday’s Penn State football media day.
Edge pressure wasn’t necessarily Penn State’s greatest strength in 2021, but one defensive end in specific, Arnold Ebiketie, proved to be among the nation’s best in his lone season in Happy Valley following a three-year career at Temple.
Ebiketie, now an Atlanta Falcon, played a major role in Robinson’s second “recruitment” to the Nittany Lions this fall.
“[Ebiketie] called me and told me ‘Go somewhere where you’re actually needed,’” Robinson said. “He told me it was a big change from his previous school to here and about the development that he had once he got here.”
After watching Ebiketie’s film with the Owls and then with the Nittany Lions, Robinson noticed how much of an impact one year could make, and he saw that Penn State could provide that opportunity.
Soon enough, Robinson took Ebiketie’s advice and went where he was needed most.
With the addition of Robinson and the return of Isaac, the Nittany Lions’ defensive end room has quickly become one of the strongest groups on roster, both in dynamic ability and depth.
“Everybody here wants everyone to be great,” Robinson said. “There’s no selfishness here.”
For Isaac, who was expected to make a major impact prior to last fall before suffering a torn achilles, health will play a major factor in how he’ll compete through camp and the fall.
While he said he’s not quite 100% healthy, Isaac stated he will play Week 1 at Purdue.
“I’m looking forward to just being back on the field,” Isaac said. “Took a lot of mental reps. So I'm definitely looking forward to just displaying them on the field.”
Off the field, Isaac never quit working despite being unable to play in actual games last season.
“Rehab is a workout itself. So it's like just trying to balance everything out,” Isaac said. “You do something on one leg, try to do something on the other leg, or you do something here, try to do it on the other side… just to keep the balance going.”
Everybody wants to be great, but with a room nearly overflowing with bodies, some, like redshirt senior Nick Tarburton — who started eight of 13 games last season — will have to fight even harder for their opportunity this fall.
To defensive line coach John Scott Jr., Tarburton is “as steady as you can be.” But Tarburton doesn’t just want to be steady, he wants to be great.
“I think I’ve proved myself that I can play in this league,” Tarburton said. “I want to be a force no matter what. Just be dominant.”
Outside of Tarburton, the options are strong deep into the depth chart.
There’s Smith Vilbert, who recorded three sacks in the Outback Bowl — a Penn State bowl record. Then, Amin Vanover, who appeared in six games last season. After that are freshmen Dani Dennis-Sutton and Ken Talley, former 5- and 4-star recruits, respectively.
On the front end, there’s still much to uncover as to who will earn the two starting spots — will it be Isaac and Robinson, or will Tarburton earn his spot?
Maybe, similar to how Jesse Luketa was used last season, Robinson will play a hybrid pass rusher role, shifting between defensive end and outside linebacker.
“The ceiling is so high,” Isaac said. “There’s a lot of potential in the d-line. We just have to put it together during camp and then into the season.”
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