Penn State football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup
For as poorly as Penn State played during the 2020 season, the ensuing offseason couldn’t have gone much better.
On the offensive side of the ball, the hiring of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich was one of the best coordinator hires in the country, and he’ll have plenty of weapons with which to work. Pat Freiermuth was the only major loss from the skill positions, as Penn State returns 91.99 percent of its offensive production that ranked second in the Big Ten. The offensive line will be a work in progress, but Rasheed Walker’s decision to return was crucial.
Defensively, Brent Pry will be working with what is maybe the top linebacker group in the conference, one that runs six deep. Penn State is stacked at the corner position as well, especially with Tariq Castro-Fields coming back. Elsewhere, the entire starting defensive line from 2020 will need to be replaced, but Penn State has been busy addressing that with some key additions in the transfer portal.
Safety Jaquan Brisker holding off on the NFL for one more year was also huge, as the safety spot is likely Penn State’s biggest position of need. Overall, Penn State’s defense, which ranked 3rd in the B1G, has plenty of experienced pieces to work with as 6 starters return.
Here’s how I have the 2021 Penn State starting lineup shaking out for Week 1:
QB: Sean Clifford
RB: Noah Cain
WR1: Jahan Dotson
WR2: Parker Washington
WR3: KeAndre Lambert-Smith
LT: Rasheed Walker
LG: Mike Miranda
C: Juice Scruggs
RG: Anthony Whigan
RT: Caedan Wallace
TE: Brenton Strange
The skinny: The most important returning pieces on the offense are Clifford and Dotson. As much as fans may have wanted Penn State to bring in a transfer quarterback, Clifford is a known quantity and probably the best returning passer in the league outside of Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan.
Dotson has the potential to receive some votes for the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and Parker Washington had a strong freshman season, getting better each week. Assuming Lambert-Smith adds some size over the offseason, he should have the lead over Cam Sullivan-Brown and Daniel George.
Despite Cain playing on just one series in 2020 and Keyvone Lee and Devyn Ford filling in admirably, Cain will probably get the nod in Week 1 of what will be a strong three-headed RB attack with pretty even distribution.
On the offensive line, the tackle positions are locks, as is Miranda starting somewhere on the interior, but the losses of Will Fries and Michal Menet will be felt in 2021. Scruggs played mostly at right guard in 2020, but I suspect Penn State will move him to center, opening up the guard spot for Whigan. Des Holmes could factor in there, although he’s played almost exclusively on the left side.
DE: Arnold Ebiketie
DT: Hakeem Beamon
DT: Derrick Tangelo
DE: Adisa Isaac
LB: Brandon Smith
LB: Jesse Luketa
LB: Ellis Brooks
CB: Tariq Castro-Fields
CB: Joey Porter Jr.
S: Jaquan Brisker
S: Ji’Ayir Brown
The skinny: Penn State’s defensive line is getting a complete overhaul in 2021, but the starters should be pretty clear cut. Ebiketie was Penn State’s best addition from the transfer portal. A reshirt junior, Ebiketie brings experience from his Temple days in which he finished 2020 with 4 sacks and was second team All-AAC. Tangelo, a grad transfer from Duke, is the likely fix for Antonio Shelton’s departure to Florida.
No surprises on the linebacker group, as all 3 starters from 2020 return, but Penn State has a 5-star talent, Lance Dixon, and 4-star talent Curtis Jacobs waiting in the wings, not to mention a versatile Charlie Katshir.
The Lions have 6 corners who could legitimately start for Big Ten programs, which makes former South Carolina Gamecock Johnny Dixon’s transfer to Happy Valley a bit strange, but a welcome addition nonetheless, as he will give Porter a run for the second corner spot.
Brisker’s spot at safety is safe, but Brown will be competing with fan favorite and special teams captain Jonathan Sutherland for the other spot.
Penn State is well positioned to return to a top 15 ranking in 2021 and receive an invite to another New Year’s Six bowl game. The offense should be far more exciting and explosive with Yurcich calling the plays, the only question is what version of Clifford comes to play.
It should be a typical year from LBU on the on the defensive front seven, although how well the line pressures the quarterback is yet to be determined. Penn State struggled at times this past season with man coverage, so having so many talented corners is a plus, but the second safety spot may prove to ultimately be a point of weakness.