football Edit

2020 Vision: Breaking Down Next Year's LBs, DBs & Special Teams

The Penn State football program was only about an hour into its 2020 off-season, but already, James Franklin was looking ahead. Penn State had just beaten Memphis in the Cotton Bowl to cap an 11-2 campaign that few had seen coming, and before his postgame presser was over, he was already thinking about next year. Being James Franklin, he was thinking big-picture.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas, but I think most people would agree that the program is headed in the right direction. We’re developing well. We’re game-planning well. We’re recruiting well,” he said. “And really, at this point, where we are as a program, you’ve got to do it all at a very, very high level. We’ve got great support from President [Eric] Barron and [athletic director] Sandy Barbour and the administration and the board. I think it’s really important for us to continue doing that and be in alignment, all of us, always putting Penn State first. It’s always about the university first and what’s in the university’s best interest and also the athletic department. But we think we can have a big impact in that.

“So I’m going to enjoy this win, but I do think this game and this win and these 11 wins and these young players who are going to be returning are going to give us a lot of momentum going into next season, which we’re going to need.”

The Nittany Lions gave themselves a tough act to follow, having put together their third 11-win season in the past four years. But many of the players who were responsible for those 11 wins in 2019 will be returning in 2020. The program bid farewell to only 16 players on senior day in November, and 13 of the starters listed on the Cotton Bowl depth chart are expected to be back next fall. That list includes the bowl’s offensive and defensive MVPs: running back

Journey Brown and outside linebacker Micah Parsons. It also includes starting quarterback Sean Clifford, four starting offensive linemen and All-Big Ten tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Franklin said after the Cotton Bowl that the 2019 team “lays the foundation for the future.” The team will be working toward that future in the months ahead.

Throughout the week, Blue White Illustrated editor Matt Herb will take a closer look at next year’s squad. Today, he wraps it up with linebackers, defensive backs and special teams.


LINEBACKERS

LB Micah Parsons
LB Micah Parsons

KEY RETURNEES Ellis Brooks, Lance Dixon, Charlie Katshir, Jesse Luketa, Micah Parsons, Brandon Smith

KEY LOSSES Cam Brown, Jan Johnson

NEWCOMERS Tyler Elsdon, Zuriah Fisher, Curtis Jacobs

OUTLOOK Despite losing two starters, this should be one of Penn State’s stronger position groups in 2020. Any position group with Parsons as its centerpiece is going to be strong by definition.

Parsons was everywhere in the Cotton Bowl. He tied a career-high with 14 tackles, had two of Penn State’s six sacks, broke up a couple of passes and forced two fumbles. The Nittany Lions may have given up 39 points and 542 yards, but they got a marvelous performance from their consensus All-America outside linebacker.

They’ll probably get more of the same in 2020. Parsons built up a lot of momentum in the second half of his sophomore season. Of his team-high 109 tackles, he made 78 in Penn State’s final seven games. In addition, six of his 14 tackles for loss came in the Lions’ last three games. Suffice it to say, he is on track for a huge junior season.

Parsons is the only starting linebacker set to return, as the Lions are graduating Brown and Johnson, who finished third and fifth on the team in tackles, respectively, in 2019. That might seem like a problem, but Penn State has built up plenty of depth at this position group. Brooks saw substantial action behind Johnson at middle linebacker during his redshirt sophomore season, finishing with 39 stops to rank 10th on the team. Luketa backed up Parsons and was also listed third behind Johnson and Brooks in the middle, so he’s likely to see more action in his junior season.

At the opposite outside linebacker spot, Smith and Katshir are returning and will vie for Brown’s vacated starting position. Smith made a big first impression as a true freshman this past August when he flattened an Idaho receiver after a short gain in the Lions’ season opener. He finished his debut season with 14 tackles in limited duty. At 6-3, 240 pounds, he’s a bit more compact than the rangy Brown, but he’s just as fast and athletic as his predecessor. The former four-star prospect is expected to battle Katshir this spring, but he figures to make a big impact next fall. A starting trio that consists of Parsons, Brooks and Smith could be formidable indeed.

QUOTABLE Parsons on wearing jersey No. 11: “The guys who came before me, I hold something inside of me about how much it means to the program and how much it means to me just trying to be the next guy out of here. You see the progress that the previous players made, the number, the legacy. You keep passing it on. It’s something to build off of when you come to a school like this. You have great guys all over, prestigious. This number is just as prestigious. When you come into a program like this, the opportunity to do something like this is truly amazing.”


DEFENSIVE BACKS

Saf. Jaquan Brisker
Saf. Jaquan Brisker

KEY RETURNEES CB: D.J. Brown, Tariq Castro-Fields, Keaton Ellis, Trent Gordon, Daequan Hardy, Donovan Johnson, Joey Porter Jr., Marquis Wilson; Saf.: Jaquan Brisker, Drew Hartlaub, C.J. Holmes, Tyler Rudolph, Jonathan Sutherland, Lamont Wade

KEY LOSSES CB: John Reid; Saf.: Garrett Taylor

NEWCOMERS Ji’Ayir Brown, Enzo Jennings, Joseph Johnson

OUTLOOK Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi put it about as succinctly as anyone last season. A few days after his team’s 17-10 loss to the Nittany Lions in September, a game in which Kenny Pickett threw for 372 yards, Narduzzi said, “We attacked their weakness, which was their secondary.” The Panthers weren’t the only ones who did that. The Nittany Lions ranked 13th in the Big Ten and 100th in the FBS in pass defense after allowing 251.5 yards per game this past season. The Cotton Bowl didn’t do anything to help that average, as Memphis quarterback Brady White shredded the Lions for 454 yards.

Franklin has said on several occasions that Penn State’s unsightly numbers were due in part to its success at stopping the run. That’s undoubtedly true. Narduzzi admitted as much in his postgame presser. Asked why the Panthers had attempted two passes on three plays from the Penn State 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, he replied, “Just look at the success we had running the ball today on that front seven. We didn’t have much success.”

But Franklin also conceded that Penn State experienced some coverage breakdowns throughout the season. That was a disheartening admission considering how much veteran talent the Nittany Lions returned in the secondary. Reid and Taylor were both seniors and multiyear starters, while Castro-Fields was an experienced junior. Going into the season, it had seemed as though the secondary was going to be a strength.

With the 2020 off-season under way, the unit will be undergoing a partial overhaul. The one position at which the depth chart is likely to remain intact is free safety, where Wade, Brisker and Hartlaub all return. Wade and Brisker, who will both be seniors, made a nice tandem last season, combining for 99 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions. Wade will once again be the starter, while Brisker could end up challenging Sutherland at strong safety.

The Nittany Lions also have a starter returning at cornerback, with Castro-Fields having opted to come back for his senior season rather than leaving early for the NFL Draft. As a junior, Castro-Fields had a team-best eight pass breakups and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. However, he also missed a lot of tackles and just didn't progress the way most expected he would. 2020 will be a huge year for Castro-Fields. He has the potential to play in the NFL.

The other two starting spots are in some degree of upheaval. As mentioned, Brisker and Sutherland will likely compete at the strong safety position. Sutherland is ready to step into a starting role after backing up Taylor the past two years, but Brisker also showed his potential, especially in the final few games of 2019. With Wade also playing nickelback, all three will have a big impact on secondary, regardless of who starts at strong safety.

Meanwhile, at Reid’s vacated cornerback spot, there is likely to be a heated battle this spring. Penn State used three true freshman CBs this past season, and two of them – Ellis and Wilson – were listed as backups on the Cotton Bowl depth chart. Wilson had one of the key plays in the game, intercepting White at the Penn State goal line to all but decide the outcome. Ellis would appear to be first in line to replace Reid after seeing action in all 13 games during his debut season, but this competition likely won't be decided until late in August.

For now, one thing is certain: If they’re going to contend for the Big Ten title next season, this is an area in which the Nittany Lions will have to be better.

QUOTABLE Franklin on the Lions’ pass-coverage problems: “We had some blown assignments late in the year that I don't think we necessarily should have had. I think our players and staff feel the same way. … I think we’ve got a very high standard here of how we want to play and what we want to do. I also would make the argument that sometimes the statistics can be skewed. … When you’re so good at defending the run like we have been, people are going to throw the ball a lot more, which is going to make you susceptible to giving up a few more of those plays.”


SPECIAL TEAMS

K Jake Pinegar
K Jake Pinegar

KEY RETURNEES H: Michael Shuster; KR: Journey Brown, Ricky Slade; LS: Chris Stoll, Joe Calcagno; P: Bradley King, Jordan Stout; PK: Rafael Checa, Jake Pinegar, Jordan Stout; PR: Jahan Dotson, Daequan Hardy, Mac Hippenhammer

KEY LOSSES KR/PR: K.J. Hamler; P/H: Blake Gillikin

NEWCOMER P: Levi Forrest

OUTLOOK The Lions incurred two big losses here in Gillikin and Hamler. Gillikin was a four-year starter who finished his career ranked second in school history with a 43.0-yard punting average. Hamler was the team’s top kickoff and punt returner for the past two seasons.

Gillikin’s backup last season was Stout. Arriving at Penn State last year as a kickoff specialist, the Virginia Tech transfer didn’t attempt any punts for the Lions, but he did punt in high school, averaging 47 yards during his junior season at Honaker High in Virginia. The Lions have also received a verbal commitment from Forrest, who was rated the No. 6 punting prospect in the Class of 2020 by Kohl’s Kicking Camps. Forrest is an invited walk-on, so his commitment is not yet binding. But assuming he follows through, he’ll likely have a chance to challenge Stout and Bradley, the latter having won first-team All-Conference honors at Lackawanna College before enrolling at Penn State.

The return game is in flux with Hamler gone. Dotson backed him up on punts last season and may well do so again after averaging 19.5 yards on two attempts as a sophomore. Hippenhammer has done it, too, and Hardy is an interesting wildcard. He was a tremendous all-purpose athlete at Penn Hills High in Pittsburgh, excelling on offense, defense and special teams. As a senior, Hardy scored touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns, including an 84-yard kick-return TD in the PIAA Class 5A championship game. The Lions also have a pair of experienced kick returners in Brown and Slade, but this could be another area in which a newcomer is able to find a niche.

As far as place kicking goes, the Lions appear to be in excellent shape. Pinegar and Stout combined to hit 13 of 15 field goal attempts this past season, and Penn State tied Ohio State for the Big Ten lead with an 86.7 percent success rate. One of those makes was a school-record 57- yarder by Stout, and he also had 66 touchbacks in 83 kickoff attempts.

QUOTABLE Special teams coordinator Joe Lorig on the impact of Stout’s arrival at PSU: “It’s elevated everyone in that room. He’s a great kid. The players love him, the coaches love him, and again, he’s just made our whole program a lot better. I’m really proud of him.”


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