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How will the leaders of the Penn State secondary fair in 2020?

How will the leaders of the Penn State secondary fair in 2020?
Oct 19, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (5) celebrates a defensive play with teammates against the Michigan Wolverines during the second quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State has seen some talent from last year’s Cotton Bowl-winning team leave this past offseason, including potential first-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos. However, Penn State will still have plenty of senior leadership, particularly in their secondary, in the form of cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and safety Lamont Wade.

With both Castro-Fields and Wade heading into their senior years, no season has been more important for their futures than this one. What is the outlook for the senior members of Penn State’s secondary next season, and what is their range of outcomes when it comes to the 2021 NFL Draft?

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Tariq Castro-Fields

The six-foot, 190-pound senior from Upper Marlboro, Maryland has appeared in all but two games across his first three seasons in Happy Valley. His number of tackles has consistently gone up each season, from 10 as a freshman, to 32 as a sophomore, to 54 last year as a junior. In 2019, he was voted by the media to the All-Big Ten third-team where he added two interceptions on top of his stellar season.

Castro-Fields was one of many Penn State players who had the opportunity to bolt for the NFL after last season but he decided to come back for his senior year. He returned hoping to help lead Penn State to another strong season and improve his draft stock.

He has quietly turned into a solid cornerback but needs to keep developing and take that next step forward in man coverage. That is especially the case now because he will be one of the top guys in this secondary, meaning he will be expected to take on the best receivers for the Nittany Lions’ opponents. Next season, he will likely be matched up against some of the top receivers in the Big Ten, such as Michigan’s Tarik Black. Those matchups will give Castro-Fields a great opportunity to demonstrate his abilities against some highly touted receivers.

Additionally, Castro-Fields is productive against the run, as evidenced by his 54 tackles last season, and his size is certainly not bad at all for a cornerback. That size has been an asset in helping him stay on the field so far in his career. While he missed the season finale in 2019, he managed to return for the Cotton Bowl. He combines that size with being very aggressive and physical, something NFL teams should love about him.

Lamont Wade

Wade, a former five-star recruit, will be one of the other top senior leaders of this defense. The 5-foot-9, 188-pounder from Clairton, Pennsylvania has appeared in 38 games for the Nittany Lions across three seasons and started all 13 games in 2019. He finished fourth on the team with 67 tackles and will be the second-highest tackler from 2019 returning to Penn State in 2020, behind only linebacker Micah Parsons.

Wade’s versatility is going to be key for Penn State next season. His ability to play as a high safety on one play, and on the next play he could be lined up in man coverage outside or in the slot when Penn State goes into their nickel or dime packages.

We saw a lot of that versatility in the Cotton Bowl against Memphis. Wade seemed to be all over the field as the game progressed, lining up in various spots against what was a good Memphis offense. Despite the game turning into a shootout, Wade came out of the game with a long of credit against his name. He is now setting himself up for what could be a really strong senior season. He may not be getting a lot of buzz right now, but he could quietly climb up the ranks with one more strong year.

Impact on Penn State’s 2020 Season

As mentioned above, both Castro-Fields and Wade will be heavily relied upon as senior leaders, though Penn State was fortunate enough to have a number of players decide to return to Happy Valley for 2020. The secondary is losing cornerback John Reid and safety Garrett Taylor, two spots that Castro-Fields and Wade will easily slide into as starters.

This will also be key as Penn State may be looking at plenty of youth in the remaining defensive back spots. Sophomore Marquis Wilson could be in line to start opposite Castro-Fields at cornerback and redshirt junior Jonathan Sutherland is likely the favorite to take Garrett Taylor’s spot opposite Wade. Castro-Fields and Wade will need to be excellent leaders both on the off the field to help Penn State’s defense stay among the best in the country.

As long as their playing styles continue to grow, Penn State should be just fine. Both have shown they are very good against the run and can easily hold their own against the pass. We’ll see if they can continue to take steps forward in what should be their final college seasons. Castro-Fields and Wade are two of the top three returning tacklers for the Nittany Lions, with Garrett Taylor, Cameron Brown and Jan Johnson all exhausting their NCAA eligibility, so a lot of eyes will be on them when the season starts.

The experience these two players have had so far in this defense is going to be huge for a Penn State team that will have high expectations as usual in 2020. Once again, the team is likely to be ranked in the top-10, and perhaps even in the top-five, in the preseason polls.

Current draft stock

Right now, we’re probably looking at both Castro-Fields and Wade as third-day prospects. They still have a lot of work to do if they are to end up in the second round, but they could become very valuable options later in the draft with the ability to develop in the NFL.

They certainly won’t have a shortage of opportunities, as Penn State will have some highlight games that people will have their eyes on this season. Grabbing the headlines will be games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State as well as an intriguing non-conference game in Week 2 at Virginia Tech.

They’ll also have opportunities to play in All-Star Games – whether that be the Senior Bowl, Shrine Bowl, or NFLPA Bowl – they’ll have chances after the season to make a name for themselves. The chance is there for two of the senior leaders of Penn State’s defense. Now, they just have to take them.

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