Penn State Football: Ranking James Franklin's Top Defensive Players

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Penn State Football: Ranking The Top-10 Defensive Players of The James Franklin Era

Penn State Football has been known to have an elite defense under James Franklin in almost every year of his tenure.

Penn State Football, James Franklin, Penn State Football Recruiting
Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Penn State, also known as “Linebacker U,” has also sent plenty of elite talent to the NFL over the past decade. Here are the top 10 defensive players of the James Franklin era.

Penn State Football’s Top-10 Defenders Under James Franklin

10. Defensive end Adisa Isaac

Defensive end Adisa Isaac’s career in Happy Valley is nothing but a feel-good story.

After missing time during the 2020 season due to an Achilles injury, Isaac returned to finish his career in phenomenal fashion. His 16 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks in 2023 led all Nittany Lions defenders. Isaac racked up 31.5 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks in his four-year career before being selected in the third round of the 2024 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens.

9. Defensive end Odafe Oweh

Odafe Oweh was an extremely physically gifted defensive end who did not have the stats to back up just how disruptive he was for Penn State’s defensive line.

In three seasons in Happy Valley, Oweh recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. Despite the lack of sacks in 2020, Oweh blew away teams at the NFL combine and earned a first round selection by the Baltimore Ravens.

8. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos

Penn State Football
Dec 17, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers linebacker Yetur Gross-Matos (97) is introduced before the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos was a stalwart along the defensive line for Penn State in the late 2010s.

In three seasons with the Nittany Lions, Gross-Matos racked up 18.5 career sacks (6th all-time), including nine in 2019 (which ranks 9th all-time in a single season at Penn State). Gross-Matos was selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers.


7. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown

Penn State Football
SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 01: Ji’Ayir Brown #27 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts during an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Safety Ji’Ayir Brown was an absolute ballhawk for the Nittany Lions in 2021, racking up six interceptions, fifth all-time in a single season at Penn State. The former Lackawana County Community College JUCO prospect played three seasons for the Nittany Lions before becoming a third-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

6. Cornerback Joey Porter Jr.

Joey Porter Jr., Penn State Football
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports)

Joey Porter Jr. started the 2022 season off with a bang, recording six passes defended in week one against Purdue.

In his four-year career in Happy Valley, Porter Jr. recorded 114 tackles, 20 passes defended, two tackles for a loss, one sack, and one interception. Porter Jr. was selected with the number 32 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft, the highest selection ever by a Penn State defensive back.

5. Safety Jaquan Brisker

The second of two former Lackawanna County Community College defenders on this list, Jaquan Brisker came up clutch more than once for the Nittany Lions over his three-year career.

Brisker accumulated 153 tackles, 14 passes defended, 10 tackles for a loss, five interceptions, and a fumble recovery on his way to a second-round selection by the Chicago Bears.

4. Defensive end Chop Robinson

Penn State Football
Penn State Football EDGE Chop Robinson could be a top-25 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft (Image via USA TODAY Sports)

Defensive end Chop Robinson is one of the most physically gifted players from the James Franklin era, possessing elite speed and twitch.

After transferring from Maryland, Robinson lived up to his lofty recruiting expectations earning a selection in the first round by the Miami Dolphins (21st overall). Robinson racked up 17.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks in two seasons at Penn State.

3. Defensive tackle Austin Johnson

The first of two Bill O’Brien holdovers on this list, Austin Johnson was a standout on the Penn State defensive line for Franklin’s first two years at Penn State. Johnson racked up 154 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries over three seasons at Penn State.

Johnson earned a second-round selection in the 2016 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans after declaring early for the NFL draft following the 2015 season.


2. Defensive end Carl Nassib

Although Carl Nassib walked on at Penn State before the Franklin era began, his final two years at Penn State overlapped with the first two years of Franklin’s tenure.

Nassib had one of the best seasons ever by a Nittany Lions defensive player in 2015, racking up 19.5 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks. Nassib ranks seventh all-time in sacks as a Nittany Lion and his 15.5 sacks from 2015 remain the Penn State record for sacks in a season.

Nassib was selected by the Cleveland Browns in round 3 of the 2016 NFL draft.

1. Linebacker Micah Parsons

Micah Parsons
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Before his switch to defensive end in the NFL, Micah Parsons was terrorizing opposing defenses as an All-American linebacker at Penn State. Ranking as the fifth overall recruit in the 2018 recruiting class, Parsons was an instant star at Penn State, leading the team in tackles both his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Parsons’ 2020 season remains a major “what if” for Penn State as the star linebacker opted out of the COVID season before declaring for the 2021 NFL draft, where he was selected 12th overall by the Dallas Cowboys.

I purposefully left current Nittany Lion defenders off of this list, but there is a chance that Abdul Carter and Dani Dennis-Sutton, among others, from the current roster could be added to this list as early as next year.

MORE: Ranking The Top-10 Offensive Players of The James Franklin Era


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