Five Nittany Lions with the most to prove this offseason
With winter workouts having already begun, the work for next season is already underway for the Penn State football program.
Following back-to-back disappointing seasons, it's an important offseason for the entirety of program, but it may be particularly so for these five Nittany Lions players.
1. TE Brenton Strange
It's safe to say that the 2021 season was an underwhelming one for Penn State's tight end room. After a recent run that produced both Pat Freiermuth and Mike Gesicki, in addition to names like Kyle Carter and Nick Bowers, Penn State fans were excited to see what the group could produce.
This offseason, it's Strange who enters with the most to prove and the most to lose. The redshirt junior recorded just 19 receptions for 226 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games played a year ago despite topping the depth chart. Strange will have the opportunity to be the starter once again in 2022, but will have to hold off both Johnson and Warren. While neither of the latter two shined in 2021, Johnson comes in with higher pedigree and Warren showed flashes in a limited role after making the switch to the position following a career as a high school quarterback.
With a strong spring and summer, Strange could solidify his spot as TE1. Without one, however, he could find himself buried on the depth chart.
2. OT Caedan Wallace
Wallace at the No. 69 overall player in the 2019 Rivals 100, and one of the highest-rated offensive linemen recruits of the James Franklin era.
As a true freshman, Wallace received limited playing time before starting in seven of the Nittany Lions' nine games in 2020, all at right tackle.
In those nine games Wallace was solid, if unspectacular, according to Pro Football Focus. He received an overall rating of 68.3 with a run-blocking grade of 65.1 and a pass-blocking grade of 67.2. The solid showing so early in his career led many to believe he could be one of the Penn State's top offensive linemen in 2021.
Instead, Wallace struggled mightily throughout the course of the season. He was the Nittany Lions' worst graded offensive lineman, receiving an overall grade of 53.6, including a run-blocking grade of 49.2 and a pass-blocking grade of 56.4.
With an obvious shakeup needed up front and Penn State pressing hard for options via the transfer portal, Wallace's spot on the line in 2022 could be up for grabs. Other than Juice Scruggs at center, it appears nothing in set in stone at the position group. A strong offseason could go a long way toward Wallace locking down a spot, whether it be at right tackle, or sliding inside to one of the two guard positions.
3. K Jake Pinegar
Pinegar's career at Penn State has been a roller coaster, to say the least. After starting as a true freshman in 2018 and making 16 of his 24 field goal attempts, he improved to 91.7% in 2019 at 11-of-12, while nailing all three attempts from beyond 40 yards.
In 2020, however, Pinegar struggled, seeing his field goal percentage drop to 69.2% on 13 attempts and going just 1 for 3 from beyond 40.
He then suffered an injury in the summer prior to the 2021 campaign that sidelined him most of the season, not making his debut until regular-season finale against Michigan State. Instead, it was Jordan Stout who took over the full-time place kicking duties, despite his inconsistency
This offseason, Pinegar will once again be competing for the starting job. Not with Stout, who makes his way to the NFL, but instead with redshirt freshman Sander Sahaydak, who was Rivals' third-ranked kicker in the 2021 recruiting class.
4. DE Adisa Isaac
Isaac is on this list for different reasons from those above. The former four-star, Rivals 250 prospect was set to be the Nittany Lions' starter at defensive end last season opposite Arnold Ebiketie, but an injury in fall camp knocked him for the entirety of the 2021 campaign.
Prior to the injury, many felt 2021 could be a breakout campaign, leading to him following in the footsteps of Yetur Gross-Matos and Odafe Oweh and becoming a top-50 pick in the NFL Draft.
Despite the setback, the Canarsie High School (NY) product still has the size and athletic profile that you look for in a elite pass rusher. The question, however, is whether he can stay healthy in order for that to translate onto the field. Isaac has a chance to be an important player for Penn State in 2022, but he'll need to prove that he's back to where he was pre-injury in the offseason
5. RB Keyvone Lee
This name may be a surprise to some, but similar to Isaac, Lee finds himself on the list for different reasons than first three.
While Lee led the Nittany Lions in rushing over each of the last two seasons, there's no doubt that there is plenty of room for improvement in the offseason. The Florida product must improve his vision and well as his ability to fight through contact. Despite standing a 6-foot tall and over 240 pound, Lee averaged just 2.8 yards after contact in 2021.
While he enters the Spring as the clear No. 1 on the Penn State depth chart, that position is anything but safe with a quartet of talented backs nipping at his heels. Rising senior Devyn Ford and redshirt sophomore Caziah Holmes and set to return to the room, while early enrollees Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen add to the stable.
Singleton, the National Gatorade Player of the Year in 2021, is expected to push for early playing time, while Allen impressed as well in his showing at the Under Armour All-America Game.