5 offseason priorities for Penn State football in 2021
Penn State got a jump on the offseason by electing not to play in a bowl. The Nittany Lions have already been busy, dipping their toes into the transfer portal and trying to convince a few notable stars to stay on campus for another season rather than seek an NFL job.
There’s no telling when James Franklin will return to Pennsylvania after immediately heading south following the conclusion of the season to spend some well-deserved time with his wife and two daughters. Penn State has plenty of work to do in order to return to the top of the Big Ten standings, but these are the 5 most pressing needs it must accomplish this offseason:
1. Try someone other than Clifford
Sean Clifford is not a problem. He’s a great leader, showed some real tenacity this season bouncing back from a poor start and is a better QB than what several other B1G schools have. But Clifford is also not the answer. He’s average. He keeps Penn State above a certain floor, but he prevents them from having a ceiling as high as Ohio State.
Despite Saturday Tradition’s Ryan O’Gara writing that Clifford could be a Heisman sleeper, I couldn’t disagree more. The Lions need to explore their QB options, and I don’t think the solution is currently on the roster. Coaches refused to let Will Levis throw much this season, and if Ta’Quan Roberson were any good, we would have seen him by now. Incoming freshman Christain Veilleux will not be ready in 2021 and is probably not a long-term solution either.
That leaves the portal.
Admittedly, there isn’t a QB currently available who is guaranteed to be better than Clifford. That’s probably why they’re in the portal. But there are a few guys who just haven’t had a fair shot, stuck behind an entrenched starter, who may have the potential to surpass Clifford.
If I had to target one player, it’d be North Carolina’s Jace Ruder. Ruder is a former 4-star recruit and was the No. 18 dual-threat QB in his class. He was offered a scholarship to Penn State when Joe Moorehead was OC. In 3 seasons in Chapel Hill, the 6-2, 225-pound Ruder is just 7-of-10 for 98 yards and a touchdown and has suffered 2 season-ending injuries. But given his redshirt sophomore status, he would provide Penn State with a longer-term answer at the position than most other players in the portal who can only offer a year of service. It won’t be the end of the world if Clifford is the starter next season, but I like the potential of tapping the transfer market.
2. Keep nailing the Class of 2022
On New Year’s Day, Penn State picked up its latest blue-chip recruit in the form of Harrisburg-native Mehki Flowers, who is the No. 15 receiver and No. 121 national prospect. He gives Penn State 8 4-star recruits, so far, in a 2022 class that ranks 2nd in the nation behind dreaded Ohio State.
I continue to believe that Franklin’s Class of ’21 (No. 23 nationally) was an anomaly, and Penn State will quickly return to landing top-15 recruiting classes. Even more promising is that of the top 12 players in Pennsylvania, only 5 have committed to a school, with all choosing Penn State. While Ohio State reaching a national championship will certainly hurt on the national recruiting front, if Penn State can just keep it’s home-grown talent, that’ll be a much better start than last year.
3. Out-recruit the NFL
With the pandemic-shortened season, all players retained an extra season of eligibility, meaning that even seniors could return for 2021 if they chose not to head to the NFL or seek other career opportunities.
Last week, Penn State lost one of its most versatile offensive linemen in Will Fries, who announced that he would forgo his extra year of eligibility to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Fries’ decision follows similar ones by Shaka Toney, Pat Freiermuth and Jayson Oweh.
With the Lions’ poor recruiting class this cycle, it’s imperative to keep a surprise player (or several) around for another year. Saturday night’s news that senior corner Tariq Castro-Fields is returning is huge for Penn State. He would have likely been taken in rounds 3-5 in the draft.
Where the heart is willing, it will find a thousand ways. A firm believer in everything having its season. All in, See you inna Fall.. 🖤 pic.twitter.com/jPXwoo2L1q
— Tariq Castro-Fields (@ayeewonton) January 3, 2021
That leaves a pair of Lions left who have serious pro opportunities. Priority No. 1 is keeping Jahan Dotson around for another year, but he may have played too well at the end of the season to stay. Rasheed Walker at left tackle is the final big piece to keep, as Penn State is already losing two starters on the line from this past season. Either safety Jaquan Brisker or Lamont Wade would be a warm welcome back, but they’re both fairly unlikely to return.
4. Facilities upgrades
College football is an arms race of cool locker rooms and state-of-the-art training facilities. In the spring of 2017, Penn State announced a 20-year athletics facilities plan that included a new 108,000-square-foot indoor practice facility to be used along with the only other indoor practice field on campus, Holuba Hall.
As of January 2021, there’s been no movement on such an indoor facility, and there’s going to be a bit of a logjam this spring with every varsity sport having to share time in Holuba during the snowy months of January and February in State College. Franklin made a calculated comment at the end of the season hinting at his frustration with this.
The facilities for this spring are already a lost cause, but when there’s not much left to show recruits in terms of things to do in the “city,” Penn State could always use a few more toys on campus to show off.
5. One more DL from the transfer portal
Prior to the week, I was going to say Penn State needed an additional defensive back out of the transfer portal, but that was with the caveat that Castro-Fields wouldn’t return. With the senior corner back and the addition of John Dixon from South Carolina, that leaves the defensive line as still lacking some depth.
Three-fourths of Penn State’s starting defensive line from 2020 is gone. Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh declared for the NFL, and Antonio Shelton entered the transfer portal. The Lions’ best defensive end off the bench, Shane Simmons, also announced that he was finished playing football, and backup defensive tackle Judge Culpepper entered the transfer portal as well.
In the meantime, Penn State has added Derrick Tangelo, a four-year defensive tackle from Duke, and former Temple defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, who was a second-team All-American Athletic Conference selection. I’d still like Penn State to land one more edge rusher from the portal. Owen Carney Jr. would be a great fit. The former Illinois defensive end was an All-Big Ten second team selection and was third in the Big Ten with 5 sacks in 2020. Carney has reportedly heard from Penn State along with Florida State and Tennessee.