Better or worse? Previewing Penn State's offense in 2020
The year is different, but the question remains the same for Penn State: Is this the season it finally gets over the hump? And what will the offense, led by new coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, have to say about it?
Following three trips to New Year’s Six bowls in the past four seasons, the Nittany Lions yet again are positioned squarely on the bubble, part of a pack of schools looking to crash the exclusive College Football Playoff party.
While the offense frequently has found itself near the top of Big Ten statistical leaderboards — the Nittany Lions’ 35.8 points per game trailed only Ohio State last season — and has produced premium NFL prospects such as Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and K.J. Hamler, it has never been enough to push the program to its first Playoff bid.
Ciarrocca jumps from B1G rival Minnesota to replace Ricky Rahne as coordinator, and the new hire boasts a resume that suggests he might be good for what has ailed the Lions’ offense in recent seasons.
Will Sean Clifford make a leap in his second year under center, or will 2020 be more of the same with receivers dropping passes and Penn State again falling just short of a breakthrough season?
Key losses: K.J. Hamler, WR; Steven Gonzalez, G; Ricky Slade, RB
Key returnees: Sean Clifford, QB; Pat Freiermuth, TE; Journey Brown, RB; Jahan Dotson, WR; Michal Menet, C
Potential breakout players: Noah Cain, RB; KeAndre Lambert-Smith, WR; Theo Johnson, TE
Roster continuity is huge in college football, and Penn State returns eight of its offensive starters from a year ago. With a new OC and reduced team activities because of Covid-19, returning such a large contingent bodes well for chemistry and the benefits of another offseason in the gym and film room. Seventh-year head coach James Franklin signs strong recruiting year after year, so there’s always the possibility that a heralded freshman, perhaps Theo Johnson, makes a splashy arrival.
Passing game: Even
The wide receiver position has been the Achilles’ heel of the Penn State offense in recent seasons, and with dynamic playmaker K.J. Hamler’s early exit for the NFL, it’d be easy to assume the passing game might take a step back this year, especially with 5-star recruit Justin Shorter and Mac Hippenhammer both leaving via the transfer portal.
But Jahan Dotson, coming off a sophomore season with 27 receptions for 488 yards and 5 touchdowns, showed flashes of brilliance last year. Ciarrocca has a track record of creating standouts at the position after producing a pair of 1,000-yard receivers last year in All-American and Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman and teammate Tyler Johnson.
Freiermuth’s decision to return to school and improve upon his surging NFL Draft stock is also a warm welcome for quarterback Sean Clifford, who is back for his second season as the starter. Clifford threw for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2019, 7 going to Freiermuth.
With five new receivers joining the team, the position group is young and inexperienced. The second leading wideout from a year ago was Daniel George, who caught all of 9 passes. Add in the “freshman” status of new receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield, the position’s fourth coach in as many years, and the question marks stack up quickly in the wake of Rahne’s move to the head coaching job at Old Dominion.
Still, seasons past have set a low bar for this year’s group, so Ciarrocca and company should be able to at least match 2019’s output.
Running game: Better
For most teams, losing arguably the best running back in the 2018 recruiting class would be a major handicap. But for the Nittany Lions it’s full steam ahead after the transfer of Ricky Slade to Old Dominion, thanks to one of the deepest stables of running backs in the nation.
Following a year in which the Nittany Lions employed a four-headed attack out of the backfield by way of Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford and Slade, Brown all but emerged as a lock to be this year’s starter with a mic-drop, record-setting, 202-yard outing in Penn State’s Cotton Bowl win over Memphis. The speedy redshirt junior finished 2019 on a high, rushing for at least 100 yards in four of the team’s final five outings.
Brown has a tetrad of 4-star recruits behind him, lead by returning sophomores Cain (443 yards, 8 TDs) and Ford (294 yards, 3 TDs). Freshmen Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee round out the position.
Clifford’s dual-threat abilities (402 rushing yards) are not to be forgotten, and a veteran offensive line that loses only one starter (Steven Gonzalez) gives PSU a chance to move up from fourth in the B1G in rushing. Backup quarterback Will Levis should also be in the mix after rushing for 213 yards last season, including 108 against Rutgers.
Kicking game: Even
Penn State returns two scholarship kickers in Jordan Stout and Jake Pinegar, with the former handling kickoffs and longer field goals. Stout and Pinegar combined to be an effective duo in 2019, with Pinegar converting 11 of 12 field goal attempts and Stout showing his strength on conversions from 53 and 57 yards.
It will be near impossible to replace the speed and explosiveness of K.J. Hamler in the return game, but Jahan Dotson will likely be the lead option to replace the Denver Broncos rookie. If not Dotson, look for special teams coach Joe Lorig to use one of his running backs — perhaps Journey Brown, one of the few players on the team who can rival Hamler’s speed. It’s also not totally out of the question that preseason All-America linebacker Micah Parsons may field some kicks as part of a Heisman campaign.
It’ll be hard to be too much better than last season, but it’s the fine details that differentiate the type of team Penn State has been in years past from teams like Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama.
With the exception of proven receivers, Ciarrocca couldn’t ask for a much better roster to ease his transition to Happy Valley. If the offense picks up where it left off in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl, the Nittany Lions may be scoring points well into the first few days of 2021.