Penn State football: Way-too-early look at 2022
Penn State will bring in a bunch of exciting new ingredients for its 2022 football season, with some of them due to arrive on campus in just a few days.
On the other hand, more than half the players on the 6th-best scoring defense in the country are moving on, including 4 of the top 5 tacklers. And on offense, star receiver Jahan Dotson heads to the NFL after a stellar 1,000-yard season, and disappointing LT Rasheed Walker — ostensibly the squad’s best OL — will try his luck in the draft as well.
With coaching staff turnover mixed in, this doesn’t look like a quick, easy recipe for immediate treats. A team coming off a 2-year run of .500 football might be in for more mediocrity in James Franklin’s 9th year heading the program. The next batch of sweet Nittany Lions football might not come until 2023.
As for this fall, fans likely will have an experience analogous to eating raw cookie dough: You’ll get a tantalizing taste of what’s to come, but it might make you sick in the end.
Of course, this is the way-too-early look at 2022. Maybe the No. 6 recruiting class in the country, the new staff members and some key transfers can accelerate the process. This is no time for pessimism. Let’s get cooking:
What worked in 2021
Early on, the bend-don’t-break defense and a healthy, reasonably efficient Sean Clifford proved to be a winning formula. Through the first 5 games, Penn State maximized those strengths and hid its weaknesses well enough to rise to No. 4 in the nation. But for Jack Campbell’s hit that knocked Clifford out of the Iowa game, Penn State almost certainly beats the Hawkeyes on the road and ascends to No. 2 in the AP poll at the season’s midway point.
Dotson posted one of the best receiving seasons in PSU history, leading a group of wideouts who were the drivers of what offensive success the team had.
On defense, the addition of transfer DE Arnold Ebiketie, who led the team in sacks, filled the main preseason trouble spot and complemented a loaded back seven that limited opponents’ big plays and red zone success.
What didn’t work in 2021
In the Big Ten, a league known for its trench warfare, Penn State played soft on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The offensive line’s lack of push produced the No. 13 running game in the B1G (118th nationally, 108.0 ypg), and its pass protection got worse and worse as the year wore on. On the defensive side, the loss of veteran tackle PJ Mustipher to a season-ending injury in the Iowa game had major repercussions. Without him clogging the middle, Penn State gave up 357 rushing yards in a loss to 24.5-point underdog Illinois and 361 to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl loss.
Other major issues included the struggles of the talented young TE group, the roster malpractice that left an unprepared Ta’Quan Roberson as the backup quarterback early on, and some head-scratching game plans from first-year OC Mike Yurcich.
Sean Clifford returns for a bonus senior season; 5-star recruit Drew Allar arrives for what many fans hope will be a very brief spell as the understudy. When the Lions open Sept. 3 at Purdue, Clifford will have turned 24 and Allar 18. While redshirt freshman Christian Veilleux will be in the mix and might start out at No. 2 on the depth chart, Clifford-Allar is the dynamic worth watching.
At roughly 6-5 and 230 pounds, Allar comes with a college ready body and tons of hype. According to several rankings services, he’s the best incoming QB recruit in the country, and he’s at least top-5 in basically all such listings.
The guess here is that Clifford holds the job until the team suffers a couple losses with his play as an issue. Allar likely works in as 5-star true freshman JJ McCarthy did behind Cade McNamara this past season at Michigan. I could see Allar taking over as the starter under certain scenarios.
Based on various publicly available interviews, the fellow Ohioans have become friends and are embracing the mentor-student arrangement. It’s an ideal situation for Allar, who gets to learn the ropes from a veteran who must vacate the QB1 role no later than the end of this coming season. The hits Allar doesn’t take as Phil Trautwein fixes his broken offensive line might pay dividends down the road.
Penn State loses 2 key players from each level of its defense, with more than half of them exiting early for the NFL Draft. Gone from the secondary are Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields. At linebacker, Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith leave a 181-tackle void to be filled. Up front, leading sacker Arnold Ebiketie and hybrid DE-LB Jesse Luketa will be missed. Add in DT Derrick Tangelo, and Penn State has lost 7 of its top 11 tacklers and 15 of the 26 sacks recorded in the 2021 season.
On offense, Dotson will be remembered as one of the great PSU receivers of all time. He likely would have had the first 100-catch season in school history had he played in the Outback Bowl. His loss, however, won’t sting as much as those on the defensive side, because a key returnee and a key incoming transfer will cushion the blow.
The Lions also lose punter/kicker Jordan Stout, who provided a major field position boost with his kickoffs and punting.
Key returnees and transfers
Clifford will bring his grit and veteran savvy — and, yes, his issues with accuracy and erratic play, too — to the equation for a 6th and final season with the program. He’ll again have some great targets, even with Dotson gone. Parker Washington, the Robin to Dotson’s Batman, will be back for more amazing 1-hand grabs after posting 64 catches for 820 yards and 4 TDs — numbers that would have made him the No. 1 WR on 8 other B1G teams. Joining the party is Mitchell Tinsley, who is transferring in after an 87-1,402-14 season as Bailey Zappe’s primary target at Western Kentucky.
Trautwein’s offensive line loses Walker, Eric Wilson and probably Mike Miranda, but gets back full-year starters Juice Scruggs and Caedan Wallace. Also returning are promising youngsters Olu Fashanu and Logan Tengwall, who both started in the Outback Bowl.
In the backfield, as of now, both Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee are expected back. It’s hard to proportion the blame for their dismal 2021 seasons among them, the line and the coaching, but these guys proved very capable in previous seasons. All 3 touted young TEs — Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren — have multiple years of eligibility remaining.
On defense, safety Ji’Ayir Brown likely will inherit the leadership role from Brisker. Brown led the team in solo tackles (61 of his 73) and interceptions (tied for national lead with 6). Cornerback Joey Porter also returns to the secondary, as do Daequan Hardy and Jonathan Sutherland. At LB, Curtis Jacobs will take center stage after blossoming alongside Brooks and Smith. Upfront, Mustipher plans to return from his injury for a final season, and DE Adisa Isaac also comes back after missing all of 2021 with an injury.
After Allar, Penn State’s most celebrated recruit this cycle is in-state RB Nicholas Singleton, the Gatorade National Player of the Year. He could see action right away, especially if Cain and Lee don’t regain their form. Receiver Kaden Saunders and DE Dani Dennis-Sutton would be next up on the list of players who might contribute right away, and there are others.
JB Nelson, listed as part of the recruiting class but coming off 2 seasons of junior college rather than high school ball, might provide immediate help on the offensive line. He played at Lackawanna College, the same juco program that produced Brisker and Brown. A 6-6, 310-pound tackle, Nelson is rated as the No. 2 overall juco recruit in the country.
The Lions will have a new defensive coordinator in Manny Diaz and a new special teams boss in Stacy Collins. Franklin also lost some behind-the-scenes staffers, including one long-time loyalist who left to join outgoing DC Brent Pry at Virginia Tech. On the positive side, the replacements seem to be good hires and key defensive coach Anthony Poindexter turned down overtures from his alma mater, Virginia, to remain with the Lions.
Penn State plays Purdue, Auburn and Michigan in the first half of the 2022 season. If the new guys don’t acclimate quickly, the Lions could be well on their way to another 7-6 season by then. But those programs all lose key players and deal with staff turnover too, so it’s hard to guess this far out.
Based on what’s written above, Penn State’s offense should be stacked everywhere but on the line. If Trautwein starts pushing the right buttons in his 3rd season guiding the big uglies, a rapid turnaround is possible. OC Mike Yurcich will be in his 2nd season, and his track record suggests this past season is not the norm for him.
On defense, Diaz has great leaders to build around back-to-front in Brown, Jacobs and Mustipher. And the former Miami head coach likely will bring a more aggressive approach, which could improve the shortcomings in sacks and tackles for loss from this past season.
Even with all its flaws, Penn State played its toughest foes down to the wire in 2021, losing by only 4 to CFP team Michigan in a game the Lions easily could have won. So they don’t seem that far away. But they probably won’t bridge that gap in 2022. Most likely, they end up somewhere between 9-4 and 7-6.