Penn State football: Grading every position group after the 2022 regular season
If you just go by the 10-2 record (83.3%), Penn State has earned a solid B grade for its 2022 regular season. Break it down by the individuals, and the Bs prevail along with a smattering of As.
And there’s good news for the moms and dads: Most of the Nittany Lions improved over the course of the fall semester. For those who’ll be back in 2023, we look forward to watching them further progress. Stay in school, guys, stay in school.
Sean Clifford, of course, can’t stay in school. (Well, at least not on a football scholarship.) But the 6th-year senior finished strong, drawing high marks for leadership, physical fitness, working well with others and accepting criticism.
Outside of a 4-turnover game vs. Ohio State (in which he also threw for 371 yards and 3 TDs), Clifford played solid football, totaling 22 touchdown throws and 7 INTs on way less attempts than a year ago. He wasn’t good against Michigan, but the rest of the team was even worse. The 24-year-old 4-year starter accounted for 194 of the team’s 268 offensive yards against the Wolverines.
All told, Clifford completed a career-best 63.6% of his throws this season, ensuring he will finish his career as Penn State’s most accurate passer as well as its first 10K-yard man and leader in every significant career passing statistic. He also ran selectively and effectively, averaging nearly 3 yards per carry and scoring 5 TDs while going over 1,000 career yards on the ground.
If he starts and wins a bowl game, he’ll pass Trace McSorley with his 32nd victory.
Meanwhile, 5-star understudy Drew Allar threw at least 2 passes in 9 games, amassing 344 yards and 4 TDs on 35-of-59 passing. Like Clifford, he ran effectively, averaging just under 3 yards per carry and scoring 1 TD on 18 attempts. A few more reps would have been nice, but the heir apparent should be ready come Sept. 2, 2023.
Running backs: B+
Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen are the best true freshman running back tandem in Penn State history and one of the best in college football history. The 5-star Singleton is 59 yards short of 1,000 ahead of Penn State’s bowl game and ranks 2nd in the nation with 6 runs of 40+ yards. He averages 6.3 yards per carry. The 4-star Allen stands 70 yards short of 900 and averages 5.3 per carry.
A year after averaging 108 yards per game and 3.2 per carry, Penn State is averaging 182 and 4.8. The freshman sensations have combined for 19 rushing TDs; last year the whole team totaled 11. Mike Yurcich’s offense has done a complete 180, and Singleton and Allen have made it possible.
The only knock is that there were growing pains. Both youngsters netted just 31 rushing yards in the opener at Purdue, and they combined for just 35 at Michigan.
There should be multiple A grades in their future.
Tight ends: A
Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren spent more time on the field together this season, as Yurcich employed more 2 and 3-TE sets. The group blocked more often and effectively than last year, and each of the 3 upped his receiving numbers to career bests as well.
The raw numbers are down because Penn State shifted to a much more run-based offense this season. But Parker Washington caught everything near him for 10 games before suffering a season-ending injury. And transfer Mitchell Tinsley did likewise, and will likely pass Washington for the team lead in catches and yards if he plays in the bowl game.
In Washington’s absence, KeAndre Lambert-Smith stepped up against Michigan State with a season-high 83 yards and a TD on 5 receptions. A 3rd-year player, he seems most likely to step up in 2023 in place of Tinsley and possibly Washington.
Offensive line: B-
This year’s line started the season vastly less experienced than 2021’s disastrous unit, yet held its own for the most part. Changes in scheme and support from the tight ends helped immensely. But the facts are that sacks are down (18 so far vs. a B1G-worst 34 last year) and rushing yards are way up.
Down 3 starters during November, the guys up front continued to get the job done. Left tackle Olu Fashanu, one of the injured trio, gained attention from NFL analysts and is considered a potential 1st-round pick. It’s a huge bonus for PSU that he’s decided to return for another college season. If others decide to return as well, o-line could be a team strength for the first time in a long while.
Defensive line: B
What a nice mix of veterans and newcomers. DE Adisa Isaac (4 sacks, 9 TFL) and DT PJ Mustipher both returned from 2021 injuries and improved as the season went along. Transfer sophomore Chop Robinson (4 sacks, 8.5 TFL) made the most of his snaps sharing time with veteran Nick Tarburton. A bunch of others old and young rotated in and contributed. Other than getting caved in by Michigan’s powerful line, it’s hard to knock the work of the group.
The young guys who shared the MLB spot, Tyler Elsdon and Kobe King, started shaky but progressed as the season went on, exactly what you want from players seeing their first serious action. Superfreak freshman Abdul Carter outdid top returning veteran Curtis Jacobs, who missed some time with an injury. Both excelled, forcing new DC Manny Diaz to find ways to get them on the field together. Even walk-on Dom DeLuca made his presence felt. After safety Ji’Ayir Brown, the next 5 leading tacklers on the team were linebackers — Carter, Jacobs, King, Elsdon and Jonathan Sutherland. The depth at the position looks a lot better than it did to start the season.
Joey Porter lived up to his reputation for sticky coverage early, and Kalen King locked down opponents in his absence when he missed time with appendicitis. Ji’Ayir Brown, among the best safeties in the nation, leads the team in total and solo tackles, and interceptions, and dependability, and class, and leadership. Fully unleashed by Diaz, he even racked up 3 sacks and 5 QB hurries. The Lions have a ton of players on the back end who can wreak havoc all over the field. Johnny Dixon had 3 sacks and 2 interceptions, and Zakee Wheatley had 2 picks as well.
Chris Stoll, a 6th-year senior, is among 3 finalists for an award that goes to the country’s best long snapper. Barney Amor, another 6th-year guy, was outstanding in net yards and dropping punts inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Veteran kicker Jake Pinegar caught a hot streak before missing 2 FGs in the season finale. He missed 2 PATs and went 12-of-16 on FGs with a pair of 50-yarders. The blocking in front of him was an issue early in the season.
No one blasted kickoffs into or through the end zone like Jordan Stout did a year ago, but coverage was solid so it didn’t hurt. The Lions had 1 of 3 kickoff-return TDs in the Big Ten, but otherwise didn’t have big plays or major breakdowns in the return and coverage games.