At this point, Sean Clifford’s face rates nearly as synonymous with Penn State football as that of 9th-year head coach James Franklin.

The 6th-year senior will enter his 4th season as the team’s starting quarterback come Sept. 1 vs. Purdue barring something really unforeseen happening during the spring and summer. But despite all the experience that comes with 33 career starts, the soon-to-be 24-year-old doesn’t engender much more than cautious optimism among the faithful. The Nittany Lions have played .500 football over the past 2 seasons, and most of the issues have been on the offensive side of the ball.

So while the Cincinnati Kid will be the program’s most known quantity again in 2022, it’d be better for him and everybody else if he’s not its marquee player. And for that to happen, someone will really need to step up. Because many of the main highlight producers of 2021 are off chasing NFL dreams, including Jahan Dotson, Jaquan Brisker and 1-season sensation Arnold Ebiketie.

Here are 5 guys who might fit the bill (plus some dark horse candidates as a bonus):

Ji’Ayir Brown

Penn State fielded a top 10 scoring defense in 2021, and the strength of the unit went back-to-front. Brisker led a deep, dynamic secondary. Now that he’s gone, fellow safety Brown stands poised to take the spotlight. For those paying close attention, the 5-11, 205-pound senior was already doing so, producing a nation’s-best 6 INTs and a team-high 61 solo tackles in 2021. His breakout season also included an 87-yard INT return for a touchdown and 2 fumble recoveries.

As Penn State’s leading returning tackler and most experienced player in the secondary, the former Lackawanna junior college player could emerge as the leader of the defense, following in the footsteps of Brisker on that path.

Curtis Jacobs

Opportunity is knocking for Jacobs, Penn State’s top recruit in the 2020 class. He’ll go from understudy to leading LB this fall, with running mates Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith — PSU’s top 2 tacklers in 2021 — off to the NFL.

At 6-1 and 230 pounds, the speedy sophomore should be the ideal guy for new DC Manny Diaz to rebuild the LB corps around. If Diaz incorporates a more aggressive, blitzing style of play than predecessor Brent Pry, Jacobs could really flourish. He has the skill set to excel in all aspects, from rushing the passer to closing on ball carriers to covering receivers. This past season, he ranked 2nd on the team in sacks (3) and made 61 tackles, 2nd to Brown among returning players.

Parker Washington

The perfect complement to Dotson since starting on Day 1 as a true freshman in 2020, Washington has caught a pass in all 22 Penn State games since he joined the Nittany Lions as a 4-star recruit out of Texas.

In his first game without Dotson on the field, he served notice as the heir apparent in the Outback Bowl with this a ridiculous 1-handed grab:

That was far from his only highlight, as his 64 catches for 820 yards in 2021 both ranked in the top 10 in the Big Ten and would have made him the top receiver on 8 B1G squads. He’s ready.

Nick Singleton

Penn State desperately needs some juice out of the running back position after a full season without a 100-yard individual rushing game.

The issue is multi-layered: philosophy, scheme, play-calling, coaching, offensive line talent. The offensive brain trust — namely Franklin and OC Mike Yurcich — haven’t found the same page, have spread too few attempts among too many backs, and have too often made Clifford the leading ball carrier. It’s no wonder that no one back — or the ground game as a whole — has found a rhythm.

Even with Noah Cain having transferred, the problem could persist if Yurcich has returnees Keyvone Lee, Coziah Holmes and Devyn Ford performing rock-paper-scissors to decide playing time.

If only someone like Saquon Barkey were to come along and gloss over all those issues. …

Enter 5-star true freshman Singleton, the Gatorade National Player of the Year out of in-state Governor Mifflin, who according to Penn State’s official roster goes by Nick rather than Nicholas.

According to 247Sports’ latest composite ratings, Singleton is the best RB recruit in the country and has surpassed fellow 5-star Drew Allar as Penn State’s top recruit (No. 31 overall in the nation, 1 spot above Allar).

An instant fix for the ground game isn’t likely, but if it is to be had it might just come from the 6-0, 215-pound early enrollee touted for his mix of speed and power.

PJ Mustipher

Defensive tackles generally toil in obscurity, clogging space and occupying opposing linemen so teammates can roam free for sacks and game-changing tackles. It’s rare that one becomes a fan favorite and recognized team leader like Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon did a couple years ago en route to the 2020 B1G Defensive Player of the Year award.

Mustipher is a longshot to buck that trend, but all it takes is for one batted pass to drop into his arms and lead to a rumbling, bumbling, stumbling touchdown return. Mustipher’s legend might have started growing last year, had not officials prematurely ruled his progress stopped on a 4th-and-1 run on a fake punt.

At 320 pounds or so, Mustipher returns looking to make up for lost time after missing the final 7 games of the 2021 season with an injury. This will be his final NFL audition, so he should be highly motivated to cap his Penn State career with a bang.

Prior to his injury, he was leading B1G interior lineman in tackles per game. In the first game he missed, Illinois used a heavy package on offense to rack up 357 rushing yards against the Lions. He again will play a huge role for Penn State in 2022. And if a fluke play thrusts him into the national spotlight, maybe folks other than diehard PSU fans will jump on his bandwagon.

Dark horse candidates

Drew Allar: If the much-hyped 5-star QB somehow unseats Clifford, he’ll immediately become the face of the program.

Adisa Isaac: Before suffering a preseason injury, the DE was expected by many to have the type of season Ebiketie (team-high 9.5 sacks) ended up having.

Keyvone Lee: If Penn State scraps its running back committee, Lee would be my pick to get 20-plus carries a game if it’s not going to be Singleton.

Mitchell Tinsley: The transfer wideout had 1,402 receiving yards and 14 TDs last year for pass-happy Western Kentucky. If he’s as good as those numbers, maybe Washington remains PSU’s No. 2 receiver.