Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has a big hole to fill in the middle of his defense. Literally.
Penn State will need to replace defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, a mammoth force on the inside for the past few years. He finished the 2013 season with 56 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
For the first time since 2008, Penn State won't necessarily have a stud interior lineman on the defensive side of the ball. While there's some talent on the roster right now, there's certainly no Jared Odrick, Devon Still or Jones. At least not yet.
Austin Johnson played well in his first season last year, notching 27 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack. A talented player with a lot of room to grow, the redshirt sophomore has one spot on the defensive line locked down.
So what about the other one?
An area of need during Penn State's last recruiting cycle, you could argue the spot would have been occupied by five-star prospect Thomas Holley, had he stayed committed. Holley would at least have played valuable snaps, but depth chart uncertainty could have handed him a starting role based off natural ability alone.
During spring practice, Shoop and defensive line coach Sean Spencer will work with a handful of players, trying to figure out a plan. Those players include Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey, Tyrone Smith, Parker Cothren, Tarow Barney and Antoine White.
The group consists of only two upperclassmen—Smith and Barney, the latter of which is a junior college transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. Besides those two, the depth chart is full of youth and inexperience.
The good news for Penn State? All the defensive tackles for 2014 are currently on campus and will be involved during the spring. Barney and White, two members of the 2014 recruiting class, enrolled in January.
Barney is probably the most intriguing of the bunch—as mentioned, he has experience from his time in junior college. That type of resume is why Audrey Snyder of PennLive listed him as one of her five players to watch in the coming weeks:
My 5 to keep an eye on this spring: RB Akeel Lynch, CB Trevor Williams, DT Tarow Barney, G Brendan Mahon, K/P Chris Gulla. Thoughts? #PSU— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) March 11, 2014
At 6'1" and 290 pounds, Barney is one of the few guys who is physically ready to play. Despite only being on campus for a few weeks now, ESPN's Adam Rittenberg has identified Barney as a player who will push for some time next to Johnson.
Along with Barney, both Gaia and Dowrey appear to be the next options. Dowrey, who's listed at 6'3" and 303 pounds, looks the part of a nice compliment to Johnson—at least physically. He recently showed his elite strength, squatting 500 pounds a total of 10 times:
However, the coaching staff might wind up using his power in the trenches on the offensive side of the ball. According to the aforementioned Snyder, Dowrey has been spotted participating in workouts and events with the offensive linemen.
If this turns out to be the case, Gaia would likely become Penn State's third option at defensive tackle. He played in all 12 games last year.
Guys like Cothren, Smith and White will provide key depth at this point. None of the three possess the ideal size to make a serious impact right now. Cothren and White still have plenty of time left to develop, but Smith—who initially walked-on at Penn State—will enter his final season in a fight to see the field.
Who do you think will start next to Austin Johnson?
Another possibility to keep in mind is moving Anthony Zettel inside. Currently listed as a defensive end, Zettel started his Penn State career playing defensive tackle before former head coach Bill O'Brien switched his role. Not only does he have experience on the inside, but according to Zettel himself, he thinks he'd be more productive in that spot.
Between Deion Barnes, C.J. Olaniyan and former blue-chip recruit Garrett Sickels, Penn State has some nice talent on the outside. Moving Zettel inside at points during the game probably wouldn't come at any real expense.
Bleacher Report's own Tim Tolley has previously pointed out that Zettel has actually been adding some weight to his frame, possibly in preparation for a switch.
In obvious passing situations, putting Zettel in the middle and Barnes and Olaniyan on the outside would give Penn State three pass-rushers on the field at once.
Unless someone impresses immensely in the spring, it appears like Penn State will line up different bodies next to Johnson to begin the year. This isn't necessarily a bad thing—a rotational system works wonders for keeping guys fresh.
Yet as the season progresses, Shoop and Spencer will need someone to step up as the second defensive tackle.