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Penn State at Illinois Prospect Preview


Emmet Mahon

Photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics

This weekend marks the beginning of the 2023 Big Ten regular season for the Penn State Nittany

Lions. They travel to Champaign, IL to take on the Fighting Illini of Illinois. With two tune up

games successfully completed, the level of competition ramps up for the Lions and the number

of NFL prospects they will face increases.

The offense they are preparing for will bear a lot of similarities to their game against West

Virginia. The Illini attack relies on a stout run game and elusive running quarterback, efficient

enough throwing the ball to keep Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz’s squad off balance. That

quarterback is sophomore transfer Luke Altmyer, formerly of Ole Miss.

Illinois Head Coach Bret Bielema is rebuilding his defensive unit that graduated three star players in the 2023 NFL Draft. The loss of Devon Witherspoon (1st round, Seattle), Jartavius Martin (2nd round Washington), and Sidney Brown (3rd round, Philadelphia) leaves a considerable void for the back end of the Illini defense. Expect Offensive Coordinator Mike Yurcich to turn star quarterback Drew Allar loose on the inexperienced DBs.

Team Overview:

Penn State (2-0): Illinois (1-1):

PPG scored: 50.5 26.5

PPG allowed: 11.0 31.0

Rushing YPG: 230.5 153.5

Rushing allowed YPG: 114.0 224.0

Passing YPG: 279.0 204.0

Passing allowed YPG: 110.0 253.5

Time of possession: 35:33 25:12

Opponent TOP: 24.27 34.48

Penn State Prospects to Watch: Prospect rankings courtesy of Top 400 Composite of

#7 LT Olumuyiwa “Olu” Fashanu

Projected top five selection for the 2023 NFL Draft, Fashanu returned to Penn State to complete

his degree. His return has not had an adverse impact on his draft stock. Continuing the pattern of

previous seasons, Fashanu has not allowed a sack in his time in Happy Valley.

Due to Penn State games being in hand before the 4th quarter, Fashanu has played limited snaps.

He has made the most of those snaps by opening big holes for the running game and has not

allowed a single quarterback pressure. He will receive many post-season accolades and remains

on the short list for being the first offensive lineman selected in the 2024 NFL Draft. He is a

consensus 1st team pre-season All Big Ten selection.

#8 CB Kalen King

He is a 1st team pre-season All Big Ten pick. King has grabbed the defensive back spotlight with

the matriculation of Joey Porter Jr. to the NFL. The games so far have not allowed King to truly

shine. Penn State’s first two games have been against teams that rely heavily on the run. When

the opposition has thrown the ball, it has not been to his side of the field. In 2023, King has faced

zero passes, resulting in zero interceptions and has not been credited with a tackle. Despite the

lack of action, he is still a possible day one choice.

#15 DE Demeioun “Chop” Robinson

The final Penn State 1st team pre-season All Big Ten and likely first round draft pick, Robinson’s

output is deceiving. Like many of the Lions starters, Robinson has not played a full game because of Penn State taking care of business early. His strength is the pass rush, and the opposition so far has been decidedly run heavy. He has three solo tackles, including one for a loss. He has not recorded a sack or a quarterback hurry.

#143 LB Curtis Jacobs

Jacobs was also a possible early entrant to the 2023 NFL Draft who opted for one more year on

campus. He is the most productive of the Lions defensive players. In their two games, Jacobs has

racked up ten tackles, seven solo and three assists. That total includes one tackle for loss, which

was a sack. He has hurried the quarterback two times. He is on track to be drafted between late

day two and early day three next spring.

#144 DE Adisa Isaac

Tabbed to the 2nd team pre-season All Big Ten squad, most of Isaac’s snaps occur on the opposite

side from Robinson. His numbers reflect a similar dynamic to his running mate. Limited playing

time against primary run offenses have deflated his numbers. In two games he has two solo

tackles, one for a loss, and one quarterback hurry. His abilities give Isaac the opportunity to play

himself into second round consideration.

#199 CB Johnny Dixon

The song remains the same for this Penn State defender. Team success is not always translating

to individual stats. Dixon has only defended two passes and managed to make three solo tackles.

He is relied upon to be the sure handed returner on punts, fielding two, each for a fair catch. The

prospect of more pass reliant opposition on the horizon gives Dixon the opportunity to move into

day two of the 2024 NFL Draft.

#309 TE Theo Johnson

Johnson has been the most disappointing Penn State prospect to date. He is the only player who

has seen his draft ranking fall significantly. His two total catches for 14 yards are not comparable

with his significant talent. To his credit, Johnson has not complained and has remained true to his

run blocking assignments. The team has benefitted from his downfield blocking, contributing to

many significant gains. The 3rd team pre-season All Big Ten tight end could see his receiving

talents utilized more as the Lions enter conference play. His size, strength, and speed allows him

to be an appealing day two draft choice.

#357 RT Caedan Wallace

He has been a contributor to the offensive line since his days as a true freshman. One of the more

athletic tackles in the Big Ten, Wallace has polished his game to the point of being reliable in both pass and run blocking. He has only eight sacks surrendered in his career, and in 2022 only permitted one. As Yurcich’s offense gets more in synch as the season progresses, expect Wallace’s stock to rise. He is a day three selection now, with the ability to hear his name early on that day.

N/R WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith

Though not currently among the consensus top 400 players, this 3rd team pre-season All Big Ten

dynamo has opened the most eyes of the Penn State prospects. His chemistry with Allar was

immediate in the West Virginia game with a 72 yard strike to open the scoring. He has two touchdowns among his ten catches and his 197 yards receiving is tops for the receiving corps. Gauging where a wide receiver might be selected is difficult due to the sheer volume of very

good players. Lambert-Smith posses all the tools to be selected early in the NFL Draft, and how

2023 plays out will determine exactly how high.

Illinois prospects to watch:

#19 DE Jer’Zhan Newton

Newton is the most highly regarded of three 1st team pre-season All Big Ten players. The quick

twitch defender has tried to help take pressure off the Illini young defensive backfield with his

relentless pressure from outside. He has one tackle for loss as part of his seven solo tackles.

Opposing offenses have schemed plays away from him early this season. That is a trend likely to

continue. He figures to be selected at some point during day two of the NFL Draft.

#154 DT Keith Randolph Jr.

If Newton is a concern on the outside, Randolph is the force inside. He occupies space and stuffs

the run at the point of attack. He has chipped in 12 tackles this season with eight being solo. Not

the type of player to leap out to the live eye, but presence is noticed on tape. He is the type of

player teams like to select on the third day and coach up.

#186 OLB/Edge Seth Coleman

While Newton and Randolph take care of the dirty work up front, Coleman is the “get after it”

guy. He is the disruptor for Illinois. He has pocketed two sacks in his nine total tackles and has

hurried the quarterback once this season. NFL scouts are always looking to add pass rushing

threats and that ability gives Coleman a chance to be a day two choice.

#188 OG Isaiah Adams

The final 1st team pre-season All Big Ten team member, and the only one on offense, Adams is a

powerful and athletic grinder. He moves well in space and controls his area of play. Against

Kansas he allowed zero pressures. He would be a nice day two/three depth selection with the

ability to eventually start.

#291 OT Julian Pearl

Pearl is completing his sixth season of college football and is 24 years old. He’s a large player

with above average wingspan, with a high football IQ and displays solid fundamental technique.

However, age and somewhat stiff lower body likely tickets him to a late day three, or priority

free agent future.

Penn State’s significant advantage in talent and physical superiority should make this a relatively

easy victory. However, with a troublesome Iowa, and the annual White Out game, on the horizon

next week, this is the type of game that could result in an uneven performance. Coach James Franklin and staff had best have their players focused only on the Illini this week to avoid a shocking outcome.

Notes: The Penn State defense will be bolstered by the return of three key players, CB Daequan Hardy, DT Coziah Izzard, and DE Amin Vanover, The game kicks off at Noon, EDT on Fox. The broadcast team consists of play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson, game analyst Joel Klatt, and sideline reporter Jenny Taft.

Emmet Mahon can be reached at

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