Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2021: 16. Penn State Nittany Lions

Noah Cain, Penn State


16. Penn State Nittany Lions

PSU's four-game win streak to end the disastrous 2020 should provide the momentum they need to return to Big Ten Title contention

2020 Review
Penn State opened up the shortened Big Ten season with a heartbreaking, controversial overtime loss to Indiana. The early season loss seemed to cripple PSU's drive and motivation the entire rest of the way, and they opened up the year with five consecutive losses. James Franklin and staff were eventually able to right the ship and the Nittany Lions recovered to win their final four games, including a beatdown of Illinois in mid-December. The frustrating 4-5 mark forced Franklin to reconsider the program and its path towards contention in the tough Big Ten East. He shuffled up his coaching staff, brought in several transfers at need positions, and will hope for better luck on the injury department heading into 2021.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Franklin brought in Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota to run the offense prior to the 2020 season after Ricky Rahne took the head coaching job at Old Dominion. Although Penn State's offensive numbers were solid across the board, the relationship between Franklin and Ciarrocca was rocky. Franklin ended up to move on from Ciarrocca after just nine games running the offense, choosing to replace him with former Oklahoma State and Texas OC Mike Yurcich.

Yurcich has leaned on explosive, aerial offensive attacks during his time calling plays. His offensive style should be reminiscent of former coordinator Joe Moorhead, who helped PSU secure a Big Ten Title before taking over at Mississippi State. But, in order for the offense to work, the Nittany Lions need better production from the quarterback position.

Veteran QB Sean Clifford has put up solid numbers during his two seasons as starter, but still leaves a little to be desired. He has struggled against the top competition the league has to offer, and turnovers have been an occasional issue. One would imagine that he might be pushed through fall camp, but there aren't any obvious contenders to take his job now that backup Will Levis has transferred. Redshirt sophomore Ta'Quan Roberson might be able to give him a run for his job, but it's highly unlikely.

The running back position was crippled by injuries in 2020, but now may be among the deepest in the entire country. Sophomore Keyvone Lee took advantage of the injuries in front of him on the depth chart and led the team with 438 yards and four touchdowns. He'll get plenty of opportunities again in 2021, but Devyn Ford and Noah Cain could overtake him. Cain has proven to be an absolute workhorse when healthy, and is the most talented tailback on the roster. The staff also brought in fifth-year senior John Lovett from Baylor over the off-season, only adding to the depth. Lovett never put up gaudy numbers while in Waco, but proved to be a playmaking threat, especially as a pass-catcher.

The absence of K.J. Hamler was another reason why the offense struggled to create explosive plays in 2020. Jahan Dotson came on and proved that he could be a real go-to guy, but will need others to continue improving around him. Dotson tallied 884 yards and eight touchdowns last fall and became well-known around the college football landscape for amazing, acrobatic catches. Parker Washington proved to be a nice complement, finishing with 489 yards of his own. While Dotson is more of your traditional, perimeter receiver, Washington is Hamler-esque in his ability to weave through traffic and make things happen over the middle. Beyond those two, the depth chart is fairly light, although KeAndre Lambert-Smith showed flashes a year ago. Cam Sullivan-Brown and Daniel George are two players who have been in the program for a long time and are still waiting for their respective breakouts.

Penn State has become a breeding ground for talented tight ends in recent years, sending Mike Gesicki and Pat Freiermuth to the NFL in recent years. Freiermuth was one of the nation's top players at his position, but he played in just four games last fall. Now that he's gone, PSU turns to either Theo Johnson or Brenton Strange. Johnson in particular is a name to keep an eye on; he's a tremendous athlete for his position and had some moments in 2020, even in very limited opportunities.

The offensive line was good but far from great during the 2020 campaign. Three starters are back, but the two that the Nittany Lions lost are significant, in program staples Michael Menet and Will Fries. Left tackle Rasheed Walker is a huge returnee; he could have gone pro and been a fairly high NFL Draft selection, but instead opted to return for a redshirt junior season. He's grown significantly since being thrust into the role as a young blocker. Caedan Wallace will handle duties at right tackle, while junior Mike Miranda is back at center.

Terrible injury luck and a COVID year, mixed altogether with a new offensive coordinator, unsurprisingly led to frustrating results for this offense in 2020. Even so, they weren't some complete disaster, finishing second in the Big Ten and Top 40 nationally in total offense. Yurcich brings a proven pedigree to the table, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of weapons at the skill positions. Whether or not it can truly take the next step and be an elite group will hinge on Clifford.

Defense: Considering PSU lost their best defender just weeks before a wacky 2020 season, it also wasn't a shock their defense took some lumps. They were still solid themselves, ranking in the Top 30 in total defense, rush defense, and pass defense.

The big concern for this group entering 2021 is the defensive line. Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh are both off to the NFL, while tackle Antonio Shelton transferred to Florida. The lone returning starter is senior P.J. Mustipher, a quality defender, but far from a star. Mustipher at least provides proven run stuffing abilities in the middle, coming off a 2020 in which he racked up 35 tackles, but the end spots are really concerning. Sophomore Smith Vilbert and junior Adisa Isaac look set to battle it out on one side, while Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie gets the first crack at the opposite spot. Ebiketie had six sacks over the last two seasons for Temple, but isn't the typical type of player you usually see lining up at end for PSU.

Losing a star like Parsons a matter of weeks before the season proved to be awfully difficult for Penn State, even at a school that prides itself on being "Linebacker U". The linebacker corps was able to gain valuable experience without Parsons, which should serve them well in 2021. Seniors Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa led the team in tackles, with 60 and 59 respectively. Luketa played outside linebacker last fall due to the absence of Parsons, but the staff appears ready to move him back inside, which is his more natural position. The move could mean that Luketa and Brooks essentially split time at middle linebacker, with Brandon Smith and Curtis Jacobs the likely starters on the outside. Jacobs came on as a highly touted recruit last season and flashed enough for the staff to be excited about what he can bring. Depth could be an issue in this unit, with a lack of proven commodities beyond those four.

The greatest weak spot on Penn State's 11-2 team in 2019 was the pass defense, which ranked among the Big Ten's worst. They managed to swing a major turnaround in 2020, ranking second in the league in pass defense. The group could be even better this fall, thanks to plenty of returning talent and a healthy Tariq Castro-Fields. Fields has been a real playmaker when healthy, but missed over half of the 2020 campaign. He will be helped at corner by redshirt sophomore Joey Porter Jr., a potential breakout candidate. Porter, the son of the longtime NFL linebacker, finished with 33 tackles and four pass deflections. He showcased impressive closing speed and natural instincts that should only get better with more Big Ten football under his belt. Those two should lean the way, but depth is also a concern here. Don't be surprised if true freshman Kalen King sees plenty of snaps in Year One. He comes from Detroit area powerhouse Cass Tech, along with his brother Kobe, a linebacker.

Senior safety Jaquan Brisker is also a huge returnee, coming off a season in which he evolved into one of the Big Ten's premier safeties. A former junior college transfer, Brisker still struggles with consistency, but looked like he turned a corner at the end of 2020. Perhaps the most notable question mark in the secondary is at free safety. Senior Jonathan Sunderland has a good chance to win the job, as he's played in 35 games during his PSU career.

Although the defensive line will undergo a transition this fall, Penn State's back-seven should keep them in every game they play. Forcing turnovers, once a real strength of this defense, needs to be of higher priority in 2021 after the team finished 112th nationally in turnover margin last season.

Special Teams: Jake Pinegar and Jordan Stout split time at placekicker in 2020 with mixed results, as they combined for 11 of 18 on field goals. Pinegar will hope for more success as he takes the lead role, while Stout will also split time at punter. Jahan Dotson is a factor in the return game but PSU might be cautious to use him for fear of injury.

Bottom Line: Prior to last season's shocking drop-off, Penn State had gone four straight seasons of at least nine wins and had finished ranked in the Top 10 three out of those four years. Needless to say, last year's drop to sub-.500 seems more like the result of a weird season, combined with injuries and a new offensive coordinator. A return to normal should be expected, although the 2021 season won't be without challenges. For one, the Nittany Lions open the year on the road at Wisconsin and then welcome Auburn to Happy Valley two weeks later. There's more than enough talent for them to make a push back towards the top of the division, particularly with what they have at the skill positions. However, they still appear a step below the true elites of the Big Ten, including Ohio State, who they haven't taken down since winning the league in 2016. PSU fans should still be satisfied getting back to 9-10 wins and some better injury luck but anything more would hinge on a magical improvement from Clifford, which seems unlikely at this point in his career.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: WR Jahan Dotson
Defensive MVP: S Jaquan Brisker
Breakout Player of the Year: TE Theo Johnson
Impact Freshman: CB Kalen King

Recruiting Breakdown
The 2021 Class wasn't James Franklin's best group at Penn State, but still ranked in the Top 25 nationally. The grand prize was Maryland product Landon Tengwall, a bruising offensive tackle that has the raw tools to be playing on Sundays for a long time. At 6'6", 300 pounds he looks ready to play right away, but is surprisingly light on his feet. Landing the King brothers was quite a get for the staff and both could theoretically play in 2021. Kalen King is higher rated, but Kobe is a hard hitter for a guy who is just a hair over 220 pounds. Another name to keep an eye on is Davon Townley, who the Nittany Lions snatched away from the state of Minnesota. He probably needs a year to bulk up in order to play defensive line in the Big Ten, but he's a tremendous athlete.

Five-Year Trend

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.