football Edit

Biggest Penn State football depth chart changes and what to expect now

In some ways, the unofficial Penn State football depth chart looks much different today than it did back in August before the Nittany Lions' first game of the year.

More than a few spots look exactly as we expected them to, however.

It's time to reset the positional grid after watching a 5-1 start for head coach James Franklin's program while also setting some expectations for the second half of the year ahead of a clash with Illinois two Saturdays from now at Beaver Stadium that kicks off a stretch run featuring only Big Ten opponents.

Ta'Quan Roberson waits for a snap during Penn State football's loss at Iowa. BWI photo
Ta'Quan Roberson waits for a snap during Penn State football's loss at Iowa. BWI photo

Quarterback

Starter: No. 14 Sean Clifford OR No. 2 Ta’Quan Roberson

Backup: No. 9 Christian Veilleux

What's changed: Nothing at first, and then everything did. We don't expect Clifford to be out for the year, but until we know for sure that he's starting against the Fighting Illini, this is an OR situation.

What to watch for: It's Clifford's job when he's healthy, of course, but don't expect to see Veilleux overtake Roberson anytime soon.

Running Back

Starter: No. 21 Noah Cain

Backup: No. 10 John Lovett OR No. 24 Keyvone Lee

Third-string: No. 28 Devyn Ford

What's changed: This group entered the season with sky-high expectations but the ground game as a whole has failed to be effective far too often. The biggest surprises have been Cain's general ineffectiveness, Lovett earning the third-most snaps despite missing two games, and the fact that no one has stepped up to outright win the job.

What to watch for: Lovett and Ford were hurt at Iowa. How long will they be out? And, can anyone take the bull by the horns during the second half of the season?

Wide Receiver 

Wide Receiver

Starter: No. 5 Jahan Dotson

Backup: No. 6 Cam Sullivan-Brown

Wide Receiver

Starter: No 13 KeAndre Lambert Smith

Backup: No 16 Cam Sullivan-Brown

Wide Receiver

Starter: No. 3 Parker Washington

Backup: No. 89 Winston Eubanks OR No. 8 Marquis Wilson

What's changed: Back before Week 1, we had thought that true freshman Harrison Wallace III might find himself in a backup role, but that's no longer the case. Eubanks and Wilson have both played sparingly but it's clear that there is a huge drop-off after Dotson, Washington, Lambert-Smith, and Cam Sullivan-Brown, which was always kind of expected anyway.

What to watch for: Can any Nittany Lion earn more reps in the second half at this position? Our bet is no.

Tight End

Starter: No. 86 Brenton Strange

Backup: No. 84 Theo Johnson

Third-string: No. 44 Tyler Warren

What's changed: There's not much other than Warren taking the short-yardage wildcat runner role that Will Levis vacated. One surprise has been the lack of effective blocking and overall production from this highly-regarded group.

What to watch for: Will these guys, especially the top two, be more a part of the offense over the final six games? And, can they be trusted in terms of run protection?

Offensive Line

Left Tackle

Starter: No. 53 Rasheed Walker

Backup: No. 74 Olu Fashanu

Left Guard

Starter No. 68 Eric Wilson

Backup: No. 72 Bryce Effner

Center

Starter: No. 73 Mike Miranda

Backup: No. 72 Bryce Effner OR No. 70 Juice Scruggs

Right Guard

Starter: No. 70 Juice Scruggs

Backup: No. 75 Des Holmes OR No. 72 Bryce Effner

Right Tackle

Starter: No. 79 Caedan Wallace

Backup: No. 72 Bryce Effner

What's changed: There's no longer a true rotation at left guard, as Eric Wilson easily surpassed Anthony Whigan in the opener, but we have seen Bryce Effner earn a few snaps there in recent weeks. Still, that seems to be more of a chance to spell Wilson than it is a true 1A/1B situation.

What to watch for: Will PSU do any shuffling upfront? That seems unlikely, as the current group has been mostly fine when it comes to pass protection, but there has to be a way to get the running game going. Replacing players isn't always the best way to do that, but it can't be ruled out as a possibility.

Defensive Line

Penn State defensive end Jesse Luketa has been a huge part of the Nittany Lions' defense in 2021. BWI photo
Penn State defensive end Jesse Luketa has been a huge part of the Nittany Lions' defense in 2021. BWI photo

Defensive End

Starter: No. 40 Jesse Luketa

Backup: No. 46 Nick Tarburton

Third-string: No. 92 Smith Vilbert

Defensive Tackle

Starter: No. 91 D'Von Ellies OR No. 99 Coziah Izzard

Third-string: No. 55 Fatorma Mulbah OR No. 54 Fred Hansard

Defensive Tackle

Starter: No. 54 Derrick Tangelo

Backup: No. 91 D'Von Ellies OR No. 99 Coziah Izzard

Third-string: No. 55 Fatorma Mulbah OR No. 54 Fred Hansard

Defensive End

Starter: No. 17 Arnold Ebiketie

Backup: No. 40 Jesse Luketa

Third-string: No. 92 Smith Vilbert OR No.36 Zuriah Fisher

What's changed: First, the obvious one: PJ Mustipher is now out for the year. From there, Penn State is still announcing Tarburton and Luketa as co-starters, which is a cool gesture and fine, but the snap counts and also who plays in a game's most critical moments tell us all we need to know: Luketa is the first-teamer, but Tarburton is still an integral part of this defense.

What to watch for: Regardless of whether it's Ellies or Izzard who starts, Penn State will need both of them to step up and play as close to Mustipher's level as possible. That won't be easy, of course, but there were encouraging signs at Iowa for the rest of the season.

Linebacker

WILL Linebacker

Starter: No. 12 Brandon Smith

Backup: No. 45 Charlie Katshir

Middle Linebacker

Starter: No. 13 Ellis Brooks

Backup: No. 40 Jesse Luketa

SAM Linebacker

Starter: No. 23 Curtis Jacobs

Backup: No. 42 Jamari Buddin

What's changed: Buddin has been a pleasant surprise so far this year, but the top three guys are playing at an extremely high level, and with how much the Lions go to sub packages, there hasn't been much of a need to play him or any other reserve a lot.

What to watch for: Will either Kobe King or Buddin burn their redshirt? If he plays again, King will, while Buddin has one game to go before being at the cutoff point. Both would do so on special teams, of course, but it's something to watch for.

Secondary

Cornerback

Starter: No. 5 Tariq Castro-Fields

Backup: No. 25 Daequan Hardy OR No. 3 Johnny Dixon

Third-string: No. 4 Kalen King

Safety

Starter: No. 16 Ji’Ayir Brown

Backup: No. 2 Keaton Ellis OR No. 0 Jonathan Sutherland

Safety

Starter: No. 1 Jaquan Brisker

Backup: No. 2 Keaton Ellis OR No. 0 Jonathan Sutherland

Cornerback

Starter: No. 9 Joey Porter Jr.

Backup: No. 25 Daequan Hardy OR 3 Johnny Dixon

Third-string: No. 4 Kalen King

Starting slot corner

25 Daequan Hardy

What's changed: Ellis was out early in the season but is starting to become a more regular contributor, and Hardy has been a standout so far this season when in as the nickelback or while giving Castro-Fields or Porter Jr., a break.

What to watch for: Brisker is obviously playing through something. He's been good so far, but will he make it an entire season? We'd guess yes, but it's something to keep an eye on.

Special Teams 

Kicker: No. 98 Jordan Stout

Punter: No. 98 Jordan Stout

Kickoff specialist: No. 98 Jordan Stout

Punt returner: No. 5 Jahan Dotson

Kick returners: No. 24 Keyvone Lee and No. 28 Devyn Ford OR No. 10 John Lovett

What's changed: In our Week 1 projection, we included Jake Pinegar in the kicker department, but he hasn't been used yet this year. Lovett was also getting more run than Lee as a kick returner prior to his injury.

What to watch for: How will the kick return setup shake out if Lovett or Ford have to miss time? Both were hurt at Iowa, James Franklin said.

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