STATE COLLEGE – It’s no secret Penn State’s secondary last season proved porous on more than one occasion.
The Nittany Lions ended the year next to last in passing defense in the Big Ten, as it allowed 251.5 yards passing to opponents. While Penn State concluded the season with a Cotton Bowl win in which it didn’t yield any passing touchdowns in the Dec. 28 contest, Memphis quarterback Brady White passed for a career-high 454 yards.
Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith believes senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields can play a role in shoring up the unit next season.
“The big thing about Tariq, obviously, he’s the leader of the corner room,” Smith said. “We’re looking to recapping a great offseason. Not to put pressure on him, he needs to have a great year for us. We need a lock-down corner that can handle the best receiver of whoever our opponent is.”
Castro-Fields began the season as one of the Big Ten’s stingiest defenders, and he recorded his first interception of the year in late September in his home state of Maryland against the Terrapins.
His production throughout the year regressed, which Smith partially attributed to injury. Castro-Fields missed the regular-season finale against Rutgers due to an ailment.
“He was a different player,” Smith explained. “He wasn’t as confident, he wasn’t as sure of himself because of the injury. Not to make an excuse, he knows and recognizes it. We’ve talked about it. It’s one of our offseason plans and goals for him, to make sure that he can be more consistent throughout the season.”
Castro-Fields finished the 2019 season with 52 total tackles, eight pass deflections and two interceptions.
He'll have the help of several Nittany Lions' corners who flashed promise last season.
Redshirt junior Donovan Johnson, according to Penn State’s spring depth chart, will take the place of John Reid. Johnston, too, battled injuries last season but recorded four tackles.
“He’s played a lot of football up until his injuries,” Smith said. “Unfortunately for him, the last two seasons have been hard with injury. But prior to that, he was right there in the mix. He’s very talented, he’s very skilled, he’s very knowledgeable, experienced. He’s in the mix, and prayerfully, he’s completely 100 percent healthy and nothing happens going forward.”
Keaton Ellis thrived at times last year during a largely successful freshman campaign. He appeared in 13 games and tallied 18 tackles, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery.
Rising sophomore Marquis Wilson concluded the season with a key interception in the second half against Memphis that helped turn the momentum in Penn State’s favor. Despite his youth last season, Wilson recorded two interceptions to go with two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 17 tackles.
“With Keaton and Marquis, they obviously played a lot of football for us as true freshmen,” Smith said. “Their development throughout the season just continued to get better and better. In the bowl game, Marquis had a critical interception late in the game that helped us. We’re really looking forward to those guys. We seem them both as major contributors. They’re both battling for that other starting corner position… They had a great winter leading into the spring. They both hit the weight room really hard.”
Rising redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr. also received praise from Smith, who expects a promising future for the young corner.
“He brings great length and athleticism,” Smith said. “(I’m) excited to see his growth from freshman redshirt year to now repeating the freshman year, athletically. He’s done a great job off the field; he’s picked up the system.”