Penn State football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
Penn State is no stranger to replacing talent that graduates or leaves early for the NFL. James Franklin has been one of the nation’s top recruiters, although 2021 was far from his best work.
The Nittany Lions have continuity for a second straight year at the most important position of quarterback, although Sean Clifford has to adapt to a third offensive coordinator in as many years with the hiring of former Texas OC Mike Yurcich.
The defense has a few more holes to fill, but Brent Pry returns his entire group of starting linebackers to help assuage the loss of playmakers on the defensive line. Penn State and the Big Ten intend to have a normal spring, which is great news for the new transfers and freshmen looking to factor immediately into some vacant starting roles.
Here’s a look at the 5 biggest holes Penn State needs to fill in 2021:
DE: Arnold Ebiketie to replace Shaka Toney
Penn State has to replace two First Team All-Big Ten defensive ends after losing Toney and Jayson Oweh to the NFL. Adisa Isaac will replace one of the former Lions during his third year at Penn State, following a 14-tackle season in 2020, but Ebiketie is the more intriguing of the two after arriving on campus in January following 3 seasons at Temple.
The former Owl will be the most experienced player at a position group that otherwise lacks much meaningful experience or depth. Ebiketie recorded 42 tackles in just 6 games for Temple in 2020, including 8.5 for loss and 4 sacks. Penn State picked up a big commitment on Signing Day in the form of 4-star star defensive end Davon Townley Jr.m who could see some snaps in 2021.
TE: Brenton Strange to replace Pat Freiermuth
For as steady as the tight end position has been with Penn State continually churning out NFL products, the position is in for an overhaul in 2021. Not only is Freiermuth turning pro but tight end coach Tyler Bowen is joining Urban Meyer in Jacksonville.
Ty Howle is in as the new position coach and Strange now has a full offseason as the incumbent starter after being thrust into the role midseason last year with the season-ending injury to Freiermuth. At 6-3, Strange isn’t quite the red-zone target as the 6-5 Freiermuth, but he caught 17 passes for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns while making 5 starts in 2020. Theo Johnson was a heralded 4-star recruit in the 2020 cycle and will also be a big piece at the position.
Safety: Ji’Ayir Brown to replace Lamont Wade
This is arguably Penn State’s biggest hole in terms of there just isn’t a whole lot of depth to find an experienced replacement. This group would be even more worse for wear had Third Team All-Big Ten selection Jaquan Brisker not opted to return to campus rather than test the waters of the NFL.
Brown played in every game last season for Penn State after signing with the team in the 2019-20 offseason as a JUCO transfer from Lackawanna College. He only recorded 6 tackles on the season, but he had a pass deflection in the final game. Jonathan Sutherland will have a chance to win the job this offseason, but he’s yet to catch on as a starter in 3 seasons despite being a special teams captain and the coveted No. 0.
RG: Juice Scruggs to replace Will Fries
Penn State’s offensive line is a bit of a puzzle with a solution yet to be determined after losing Fries and Michal Menet to the pros and graduation and C.J. Thorpe to the transfer portal. It could have been even worse had Rasheed Walker also left early for the NFL.
The Lions’ tackle positions are set, but putting Scruggs at right guard assumes Penn State will move Mike Miranda from guard to center. Miranda is the elder statesman of the group, so his experience warrants the change. Scruggs played surprisingly well in 2020, and most of that play was spent at right guard. Landon Tengwall, Penn State’s top recruit for 2021, could also see some time at guard this year.
DT: Derrick Tangelo to replace Antonio Shelton
A transfer for a transfer, Penn State’s defensive line took a hit when Shelton, a vocal leader, transferred to Florida. Shelton played 40 games, totaling 51 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks, and he was the second Penn State defensive tackle to hit the transfer portal after Judge Culpepper did as well.
P.J. Mustipher will retain his starting role for a second year at one defensive tackle spot, but it will be Tangelo, a transfer from Duke, who will line up alongside him. Tangelo started all 11 games for the Blue Devils last year, totaling 40 tackles and 2 sacks in a run-stopping role similar to Shelton. Redshirt sophomore Hakeem Beamon will have something to say about starting after playing in 8 games for the Lions last year at defensive tackle.