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College Football Preview 2019: 17. Penn State Nittany Lions

17. Penn State Nittany Lions

Even without the winningest QB in school history, Penn State has proven they have staying power in rugged Big Ten East

Pat Freiermuth
Offense: The last three seasons, quarterback Trace McSorley has been the steady hand for an explosive Penn  State offense but after he was drafted in the sixth round of the NFL Draft this spring, it is time for the Nittany Lions to move on. Longtime backup Tommy Stevens opted to join former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State, opening the door for a new era at the QB position.

It looks like it is now sophomore Sean Clifford's time to lead a young, but talented, PSU offense. Clifford saw some action in 2018, throwing for 195 yards and two touchdowns, but is still learning the ropes of OC Ricky Rahne's scheme. Clifford will certainly have big shoes to fill, but people around the program have raved about his work ethic and arm strength. He also has solid mobility, which was a major part of McSorley's game. The new signal-caller will benefit from an early season schedule that isn't very difficult, allowing him time to acclimate and get more comfortable in the role.

Penn State is also bringing in a new feature back after Miles Sanders decided to leave a year early for the pros. Sanders is certainly a crucial loss (1,274 yards, 9 touchdowns in '18) but much like the QB position, there is serious hype about the fresh starter. Sophomore Ricky Slade is a former highly-touted recruit who flashed playmaking potential last fall and is more explosive than Sanders. With PSU likely leaning on the ground game early on, expect his numbers to skyrocket after gaining 257 yards of rushing a season ago. Newcomers Devyn Ford & Noah Cain are part of a talented recruiting class that should also push for carries. Cain saw a lot of action in the spring and impressed coaches and fans alike. This is certainly a very inexperienced group of running backs, but the potential is there for something special to grow here over the course of this fall.

Few freshmen in the entire country were as surprising as K.J. Hamler, who was the 47th-ranked receiver in the 2017 class but ended up leading Penn State in receiving. Hamler caught 42 passes for 754 yards and proved to be a terrifying playmaker in the open field, averaging 18 yards per reception. He is a little bit on the small side for a true No. 1 target but Hamler showed enough last season to warrant All-Conference hype entering 2019. It will be fascinating to see who will step up as the No. 2 guy beside him after the transfer of Juwan Johnson to Oregon. My bet is redshirt freshman Justin Shorter, who was expected to do big things in 2018 but struggled with injuries and caught just three passes. At 6'4", 230 pounds Shorter has ideal size and jaw-dropping athleticism, and he didn't shy away from any hype this off-season, claiming he could win the Biletnikoff Award in 2019. A breakout from Shorter would be huge, but the Nittany Lions will also need support from sophomores Jahan Dotson and Mac Hippenhammer, who both are big play threats.

Tight end could be important in this Penn State offense as a security blanket for Clifford early on and luckily for the Nittany Lions, the position appears to be in good hands. Sophomore Pat Freiermuth had 368 yards a season ago and played extremely well down the stretch. Add in talented redshirt freshman Zack Kuntz and PSU has a plethora of options for Clifford.

Paving the way for the new wave of offensive playmakers will be one of the country's most underrated offensive lines. This unit returns three starters with 62 starts between them, including a number of All-Big Ten caliber blockers. Junior center Michael Menet is a guiding force in the heart of the line, while junior Will Fries offers the versatility to play either tackle spot. Left tackle is a concern coming out of the spring, but redshirt frosh Rasheed Walker appears ready to grab ahold of the starting job.

Despite some of the growing pains this offense will undoubtedly face with so much youth, it could be a very exciting unit. There is speed and explosiveness at every major skill position and the O-Line will be key in grinding Big Ten action. Don't be surprised if this offense is again one of the top groups in the conference.

Defense: The Nittany Lions entered 2018 decimated with NFL departures and graduation losses, returning just three starters. That isn't quite the case in '19, as six starters are returning, including some players who could legitimately vie for All-American honors.

Penn State will run a physical 4-3 defensive front that is headlined by junior Yetur Gross-Matos. Gross-Matos was dominant in 2018, recording 54 tackles, 8 sacks and 12 TFL and most think he is just scratching the surface. Blessed with good size and a high motor, he should be a high NFL Draft selection next spring. The other returnee to the D-Line is sturdy veteran Robert Windsor, who should start at one D-Tackle spot. Sophomore P.J. Mustipher could start alongside him as another former high profile recruit who had flashes last fall and is a real gap-clogger in the middle. Keep an eye on junior Shane Simmons, a guy with the talent to be a star who has been unable to stay healthy throughout his time in State College.

Long labelled as "Linebacker U" it appears PSU has their next great player at the position in sophomore Micah Parsons. Parsons originally came to Penn State as a defensive end but they were so thin at linebacker he was moved around. It certainly worked out, as Parsons led all Nittany Lion defenders with 83 tackles as a true freshman. He has All-Big Ten talent but will still have to grow more comfortable as an outside linebacker. Senior Jan Johnson is the likely starter at middle linebacker, while Cam Brown will start opposite of Parsons at OLB. That trio will give PSU one of the most experienced and well-rounded groups in the conference.

The secondary should also be a notable strength as the Nittany Lions return two key seniors and have loads of talent waiting in the wings. Senior John Reid is slated to be their top coverage corner and he certainly has the tools to be shutdown. Reid had eight pass deflections and two INTs this past fall after a gruesome torn ACL in 2017. Now clearly 100 percent, he'll continue to build on that success, although the starting spot at the other corner slot is up for grabs. Senior Garrett Taylor is locked in at free safety and is tremendous at jumping routes and making plays, with three interceptions last season. Yet, people around the program seem to be more excited about his safety mate, junior Lamont Wade. Wade has 49 tackles over the past two years in limited time, but has the talent to be much, much better.

This defense had serious question marks entering 2018 and still managed to put together a solid campaign. Those questions seem to be basically gone entering this fall, although depth is a concern in some spots. With Gross-Matos & Parsons leading the charge, the 20.5 PPG allowed in '18 could drop further, and this group should be the guiding force as the young offense figures things out.

Special Teams: Even though he had some ups-and-downs last fall, getting sophomore Jake Pinegar back as placekicker is huge for Penn State. He was 16 of 24 on field goals last year, with a long of 49. At punter, senior Blake Gillikin is one of the best in the Big Ten, earning All-Conference honors in 2017. He'll hope to get back to that 2017 form after an uneven showing in 2018.

Bottom Line: With 31 victories over the last three seasons, Penn State has cemented themselves a consistent Big Ten Title threat under head coach James Franklin. Franklin and his staff have recruited extremely well and this team has as much talent as anybody in the conference. That should serve them well in what will be somewhat of a transition season away from the Trace McSorley era. Clifford & Slade will certainly need some time to adjust to their new roles, but the defense should be able to keep this Nittany Lion squad in the mix. They still might be too young to overtake Ohio State and Michigan to win their first division title since 2016 but they will definitely stick in the mix and another New Year's Six Bowl seems like a realistic expectation in Happy Valley.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: WR K.J. Hamler
Defensive MVP: LB Micah Parsons
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Ricky Slade
Impact Freshman: RB Noah Cain

Five-Year Trend
2014: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)
2015: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
2016: 11-3 (8-1 Big Ten)
2017: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
2018: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)

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