10 biggest questions I have as Penn State enters preseason camp
The 2021 season can’t come soon enough for Penn State football as the Nittany Lions have been red hot on the summer recruiting trail and the promise of a sold-out Beaver Stadium lurks just around the corner.
Penn State has the potential to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten this season, but that doesn’t mean the program is void of questions about how quickly it can rebound from a 4-5 season.
As James Franklin prepares for his 8th season in Happy Valley and attempts to get back to Indianapolis at season’s end, these are the 10 biggest questions facing his team …
1. What version of Sean Clifford comes to play?
Is Penn State getting the Sean Clifford that led the team to a Cotton Bowl victory in 2019 while throwing 23 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions, or will it be another year of the quarterback who was benched midseason while throwing 16 touchdowns to 9 interceptions?
For Penn State’s purpose, let’s hope it’s the former as the depth behind Clifford has waned with the transfers of Will Levis and Micah Bowens. The good news for the 3rd-year starter is that nearly his entire arsenal of weapons returns, minus Pat Freiermuth, who missed much of 2020 anyway.
For as down of a year as Clifford had in 2021, he’s actually tied for the 33rd best Heisman odds in the country at +10000 at DraftKings, which isn’t that bad, all things considered.
2. How much of an upgrade is new OC Mike Yurcich?
Mike Yurcich could turn out to be the best assistant hire of the offseason as he takes over at offensive coordinator for Kirk Ciarrocca.
Penn State actually finished third in the Big Ten last season, scoring 29.8 points per game, but the offense never seemed to fully hit its stride and frequently came up short in the red zone.
Yurcich-led offenses have scored at least 40 points in 51 of the 102 games he’s been a part of as an OC since 2013 — the most in all of FBS — and with an actual offseason to install his fast-paced offense, perhaps the Nittany Lions can have one of the best offenses in the country to match a top-notch defense.
3. Where will Jahan Dotson rank in the conference at season’s end?
There’s no shortage of talented receivers around the Big Ten, but Jahan Dotson could still prove to be the most productive at the position, something he did in 2020, albeit as one of the few players in the B1G to play all 9 scheduled games.
Dotson has a point to prove this year: that last season wasn’t a one-hit wonder and that he made the right decision to not leave early for the NFL. Yurcich’s offense relies on short, quick passes, but that won’t necessarily be a hindrance to Dotson as he has the explosive potential to turn even pedestrian passes into dynamic touchdowns in the blink of an eye.
Don’t forget about the playmaker on punt returns either, as he averaged nearly 25 yards a return and took one for a touchdown in 2020.
4. What will be the running back rotation?
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and for all the trials and tribulations that Penn State suffered at the running back position with career- and season-ending injuries to its top two backs, the Nittany Lions now appear to be deeper than ever at the position with real experience.
It will probably still be Noah Cain’s job to lose in Week 1, but the addition of John Lovett from Baylor — to go along with junior Devyn Ford and sophomores Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee — gives Penn State 5 backs who likely could be starters at most Division I programs.
5. What is the ceiling for Brandon Smith?
Penn State has the Linebacker U brand for a reason, and Brandon Smith could be next in line to blossom into one of the best in the country.
Smith was the crown jewel of Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class as the best linebacker prospect in the nation and saw immediate playing time his freshman season before being asked to take on a bigger role in 2020 with the unexpected departure of Micah Parsons. Smith will be making the move from SAM to WILL linebacker this year, meaning he’ll spend more time around the line of scrimmage and less time in coverage, so look for his sack and tackle-for-loss numbers to make a sizable jump.
6. Who will be the impact freshman?
One name that continued to pop up over the spring and summer was early-enrollee cornerback Kalen King, a 4-star recruit.
No one received more praise this offseason around Happy Valley than King, including from James Franklin himself who called King the most talented true freshman he’s ever seen since taking the head coaching job at Penn State.
The only thing working against King is the depth chart, as Tariq Castro-Fields is one of the leaders of the defense at the cornerback position and sophomore Joey Porter Jr. was the team’s breakout player at the position in 2020.
7. Can the recruiting train keep on rolling?
That lackluster Class of 2021 seems like a distant memory as it feels like every week this summer Penn State lands yet another blue-chip recruit.
As of the time of this writing, Penn State ranked second in the nation for next year’s recruiting class with 22 commits, including 13 4-star prospects. Even more important is Penn State being able to take back its own backyard, locking down 5 of the top 8 Pennsylvania prospects.
Penn State may have even hit a home run with quarterback Drew Allar, an Ohio native who could turn out to be the best quarterback prospect in the cycle after starring in the Elite 11 finals this summer.
8. Is the Wisconsin game more important than Ohio State?
Penn State fans know all too well how a Week 1 loss can make things turn south in an instant. Look no further than Michael Penix Jr. diving for the pylon in overtime.
Like last season, Penn State starts the year on the road against one of the best teams in the Big Ten, only this time the environment will be even more hostile with a full Camp Randall Stadium.
If Penn State loses in Week 1 to Wisconsin, can the Nittany Lions keep forging ahead without thinking their chance at making the College Football Playoff is already gone? What if more doubt surrounding Sean Clifford starts to creep in before the month of September even ends?
Penn State needs to be rolling on all cylinders before its Halloween weekend matchup with the Buckeyes, and a win over the Badgers will go a long way in building confidence that an undefeated season is possible. Tests again Auburn, Indiana and Iowa also precede the trip to Columbus.
9. What does a White Out feel like again?
One of the biggest advantages Penn State always has was removed in 2020 as the Nittany Lions never got a chance to play in front of 100,000+ fans, but God willing, the White Out game returns not once but twice in 2021.
The best atmosphere in college football returns for the Auburn and Michigan games, likely Penn State’s toughest home opponents. For nothing more than the imagery and sounds, seeing a packed Beaver Stadium will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the 2021 college football season.
10. Is a return to Indy in the cards?
Should Penn State fans book a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 4 for the Big Ten Championship Game? The odds are against Penn State with road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State, but it’s also not completely out of the question.
Penn State returns much of its roster from 2020 and should benefit from Mike Yurcich and, maybe more than any other B1G team, the roar of its crowd. Anything less than a 10-2 season would almost feel disappointing, especially with the door potentially open as Ohio State starts a new quarterback.
Is this the year Penn State gets back to Indianapolis for the first time since 2016?