Penn State has one of the best cornerbacks in college football heading into the season

JULY 24, 2023 10:21 AM
We’re ready to wrap up the defense after breaking down Penn State’s depth chart at every position on that side of the ball. We last discussed the safeties and we’ll close it out now with arguably the best position group on the team — one so good that a potentially impactful transfer joined and left after only one semester.
Let’s take a look at how Penn State is shaping up at cornerback.
This might be the best starting trio in the country at corner. That’s backed up by the previously alluded to departure of Storm Duck, who joined from North Carolina in the winter and months later left for Louisville, where he’s expected to start this fall. It’s unlikely Duck would have unseated any of the team’s three starters, and for good reason.
King is already projected to be a first round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and could be the first cornerback off the board. In fact, I thought he was the best corner on Penn State’s roster in 2022 despite playing with No. 32 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft Joey Porter Jr. He’s excellent in man coverage flipping his hips with ease to stick with receivers as they try to maneuver by him. He doesn’t let them gain any separation and doesn’t have the same issues with holding that Porter did. He even had the ball production — with 15 passes defended and three interceptions — that you want to see an elite corner. I wouldn’t call King flawless at the position, but right now he’s as good as it gets in college football.
Dixon is no slouch either as a second corner. In fact, he’d be the top corner on a lot of teams around the country but the guy at the top is just that good. Dixon has good size and like King had good ball production with eight passes defended and two interceptions. He’s hyper competitive at the catch point, using his hands to dislodge passes even when they reach their target. The senior can turn and run with plenty of receivers because he’s a good athlete and doesn’t shy away from physical receivers either. Dixon could see more targets this year as teams try to avoid throwing the ball toward King. That should bode well for his interception total at season’s end.
Hardy doesn’t have great size for a corner at 5-foot-9, 181 pounds, but he makes up for it with his mentality. The redshirt senior has an edge to the way he plays, mixing it up in the run game and as a blitzer — two crucial skills because he plays in the slot and therefore closer to the line of scrimmage. Of course, his coverage ability is helped by the fact that he might be the fastest player on the team. He’s the ideal nickel corner as a player who has the speed to stay with slot receivers and the physicality to hang with running backs and tight ends, allowing safeties to take on easier assignments. Hardy may never get the spotlight that other corners do, but he should be in for a very good season in 2023.
The fourth corner is easy to pinpoint but things get a little bit murkier after that. That’s not to say there isn’t talent beyond that — there’s just a greater lack of experience to overcome.
Miller is the clear fourth guy on the depth chart. So much so that if something happened to Hardy, the team’s best alignment would be moving King or Dixon to the nickel spot and having Miller start on the outside. He has good length and physicality, disrupting opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage and jamming them before they can get into their routes. He has very good speed at corner and the length to break up passes even if he’s slightly trailing down the field. The sophomore should be an easy starter in 2024 and can use this year to continue working on his footwork, where he could use more consistency when mirroring receivers.
Washington is arguably the most impressive athlete of this group because he looks more like a safety than a corner, but still runs like he plays on the outside. There’s more to unpack with him because it’s more about dissecting high school tape, but Washington is a high end athlete with all of the tools to be an elite corner or safety in the long run. Given cornerbacks coach Terry Smith’s proclivity for developing corners into elite players, I like Washington’s chances of taking advantage of his physical ability.
Tracy is in the same boat as Washington on some level, but he’s more raw than his freshman counterpart. He has the athletic upside to be the fastest player on the roster by the time he leaves Penn State and again Smith will have another toolsy athlete to mold into an elite corner. He’s thin for the position right now and should benefit greatly from a full year in the Nittany Lions’ strength and conditioning program. That being said, he could see the field this season because the team likes to rotate corners and it’s unclear who all Smith will trust enough to put in the game.
Collins is interesting largely because of what Penn State’s decision to take him means. He didn’t play in his only season as Mississippi State before entering the transfer portal and ultimately choosing the Nittany Lions. Because of the team’s depth issues at the position, it seems as if there could be reason to play him at some point — and potentially early — this season. Still, he doesn’t fit the mold of Duck, who was originally set to be one of the team’s backups on the outside. Instead, Collins is more about upside because he’s unproven and a better athlete who isn’t as refined in his technique. It would be a very positive sign for Penn State if he can make his way onto the field for meaningful snaps this fall.

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