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Friends since middle school, Penn State’s Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard filling key roles on defense

With the season-ending injury to defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, Ellies and Izzard have moved into the defensive tackle rotation and are competing for the starting position.

Penn State defensive tackle Dvon Ellies (91) fighting off a block by Illinois offensive lineman Verdis Brown last December.
Penn State defensive tackle Dvon Ellies (91) fighting off a block by Illinois offensive lineman Verdis Brown last December.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard grew up about 10 miles apart in Maryland. They met in middle school, sharpened their focus on football at different high schools, and dreamed of the day they’d be part of a major college football program.

They never figured that not only would they be together at Penn State, but also compete for a starting job. Because of a season-ending injury last month to senior PJ Mustipher, one of the Big Ten’s best defensive tackles, Ellies and Izzard are vying for that open spot and seeing increased playing time for the Nittany Lions.

“Meeting somebody so young, you have a lot of time to build a relationship,” Ellies said Wednesday. “Early on, you would never think that, ‘Oh, you’re going to be playing right next to him,’ especially at that young of an age. Here we are, now we’re brothers for life for sure. We just hope to build that relationship and keep growing together.”

Izzard, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound redshirt freshman, has started both games played by Penn State since Mustipher’s injury at Iowa. The 6-1, 303-pound Ellies rotates in the lineup with Izzard and with fifth-year senior Derrick Tangelo, the other starting tackle.

Head coach James Franklin said the reps have increased “dramatically” for Izzard and Ellies, and he likes the way they’re progressing, noting “they did some nice things” in the last two games.

“Those guys have stepped up,” he said. “They probably weren’t ready to do it right away in the second half [at Iowa] and they probably weren’t ready to do it in the next game [against Illinois], but they’re getting better.

“You always want to be in a situation where you have a really talented guy as your starter with another starter in terms of ability and experience behind him, and then a young up-and-coming guy you’re excited about. You really want to have that at every single position. With some of the injuries we’ve had, it’s thrust those guys who were young, developmental guys we were excited about into much more significant roles.”

Izzard, who was in on five tackles against Illinois, said he has been working extra on improving his craft with the other defensive linemen and with graduate assistant coach Deion Barnes, a former Northeast High and Penn State defensive end.

» READ MORE: Good efforts for Penn State are fine, but James Franklin wants to see more wins

“I feel like my game is just getting better and better,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been progressing well. At practice, I just have to keep putting in extra work and focus on getting better.

“I didn’t want to be where I was at the beginning of the season. I wanted to get better every day.”

Ellies said he and Izzard are helping each other.

“Honestly, we’re just helping to build off each other,” he said. “There are things he’s better at than I, and certain things I’m better at than he. We’re just using that and giving each other pointers here and there. There’s always room for improvement. More so than ever, it’s important for us to keep pushing each other in all aspects.”

Ellies played together with Mustipher at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., and called him “a big influence on me early on.”

“PJ has been very mature in his approach to the game,” he said. “In that respect he’s helped me a lot with my approach and how I view my game. I’ve just looked at how he’s played and the way he’s played, how he’s built on that. I kind of mirrored that and have tried to get to where he’s at. He was balling this year until his [injury]. I take lessons from that and keep moving forward.”

Tangelo, a graduate transfer from Duke, has taken over the veteran leadership role at tackle and says that Ellies and Izzard “are really coming along.”

“They were probably nervous when they found out they’re going to play significant roles, that their reps were going to increase,” he said. “But I’m just proud of the way they go to work every day, trying to prepare, trying to get better, trying to learn more things. Just to see how invested they are really is a good feeling.”

Award candidates

Three Penn State players are semifinalists for postseason awards: quarterback Sean Clifford for the Wuerffel Trophy awarded for community service and academic and athletic achievement to a quarterback; safety Jaquan Brisker for the Bednarik Award presented to the nation’s top defensive player; and Brandon Smith for the Butkus Award given to the best linebacker in the country.

In addition, long snapper Chris Stoll has been nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, given to the outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on.