One question for each Penn State position group with 100 days until kickoff
With 100 days left until Penn State kicks off against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium, BWI is taking a look at the most pressing question for each position group.
Quarterback: Can Penn State acquire some depth?
When your quarterback situation isn't perfect, it dominates the offseason discourse, and that has been the case for Penn State following Sean Clifford's rough 2020. We won't really know if new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich can help Clifford turn things around until September 4 at Camp Randall. What we should have a better sense for, however, is the picture behind Clifford on the depth chart. Penn State head coach James Franklin said more than once this spring that he would like to find another scholarship quarterback — likely from the transfer portal — to give the Nittany Lions more security. Penn State currently sits at three scholarship quarterbacks — Clifford, Christian Veilleux and Ta'Quan Roberson — and Frankin said he'd ideally like to have five, but thinks the minimum is four. The Nittany Lions were reportedly in for LSU transfer QB TJ Finley, but he announced his commitment to Auburn earlier in the week. Franklin said he was pleased by the development of Veilleux and Roberson this spring, but practice reps can only provide so much peace of mind.
"I don't think you're ever comfortable at the quarterback position until those guys have gotten game reps," he said. "Obviously, the practice reps are critical, and very, very important, but having guys that don't have game reps and haven't played critical game reps at significant moments, you're never completely comfortable because you never know how guys are going to react when they get in there. But the work that those guys do between now and game one is going to be really important and we'd like for that gap to be closed between our ones and our twos."
Running Back: Can Penn State hang onto all the talent in its backfield?
Penn State's backfield is cluttered with talent. There are five running backs with considerable Division I experience and no nailed-on starter at the position. The winter addition of John Lovett, who started 20 games over the course of four seasons at Baylor, added a veteran twist to a room that already appeared to be extremely competitive from the outside looking in. Noah Cain's return from injury is another major factor. Keyvone Lee, Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes all saw considerable work last season by necessity after the first two names on Penn State's running back depth chart became unavailable, with Lee earning the majority of the reps as a true freshman. This picture is complicated at the moment, and the spring didn't really provide very many hints as to how it might sort itself out. Once that happens, will all five of these talented backs stick around?
Wide Receiver: Who will step up as Penn State's third option?
Jahan Dotson's evolution into the most productive wideout in the Big Ten — even amid a Penn State air attack that largely struggled last season — and Parker Washington's explosion onto the scene as a true freshman have made Penn State's top two wide receiver options pretty clear heading into next season. But who will separate themselves from the pack and become that reliable third option that Penn State needs? KeAndre Lambert-Smith, another true freshman, was Penn State's third most productive wideout in 2020, hauling in 15 passes for 138 yards. There are plenty of names who could challenge him for that spot next season, and Dotson is confident in just about all of them.
"We have a lot of depth in the receiver room with Malick [Meiga], Jaden [Dottin] Daniel George, Cam Sullivan-Brown, Norval Black," Dotson said this spring. "We have a tremendous amount of depth. I see those guys make plays every day in practice and I just can't wait for you guys to see those guys make plays on Saturdays."
Tight End: Can Penn State produce its next elite tight end?
It's been a while since Penn State fans have had to endure a season where Penn State did not field a tight end who was a massive asset. Ever since Mike Gesicki broke out in the 2016 Big Ten title-winning season, the Nittany Lions have been able to rely on an elite receiving tight end, because Pat Freiermuth picked up right where Gesicki left off following his departure. Now Freiermuth is off to the NFL, and the Nittany Lions have a new offensive coordinator in Yurcich and a new tight ends coach in Ty Howle. Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson both showed flashes after Freiermuth went down with an injury last year, and redshirt freshman Tyler Warren has also earned positive reviews. The talent is certainly available for the Nittany Lions to mold their next star at the position.
Offensive Line: With a full spring practice now complete, can Phil Trautwein turn Penn State's O-line into an asset?
While the team results were an obvious disappointment, Penn State's offensive line quietly made some moderate improvements in its first season under new offensive line coach Phil Trautwein in 2020 after overcoming a poor start. The Nittany Lions made the jump from 11th to 7th in the Big Ten in Pro Football Focus' OL Pass Blocking Efficiency metric, and were able to rely on their offensive line to control opposing defensive fronts down the stretch of the season as they used the running game to win their final four games. Now that Trautwein has had the benefit of a full spring practice slate to truly work with his players and ensure that his tactics are understood, can the Penn State offensive line make yet another jump?
Defensive Line: How much of an impact will the transfers make?
Penn State's success — or lack thereof — along the defensive front could be defined by a pair of new additions to the program, Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo. Both of those players have considerable experience, with Ebiketie spending four years at Temple and Tangelo playing four seasons at Duke. Ebiketie was one of the more productive pass rushers in the AAC last season, and defensive line specialist Eddy McGilvra, who is training him this summer, called him a potential top-100 pick in the NFL Draft. Tangelo has received positive reviews for his athleticism on the interior as well since his arrival. Can they recreate their success from elsewhere in the Big Ten?
Linebackers: Where does Jesse Luketa fit?
Asked about his interior linebackers following Penn State's second open practice of the spring, Franklin said he views both Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks as starters for his team moving forward. He also revealed that the Nittany Lions might be considering using Luketa in other ways moving forward, but didn't specify where. Luketa did not partake in any live work during the spring, Franklin said. Summer camp should provide more clarity about the plans the Nittany Lions have for Luketa.
Defensive Backs: Who starts alongside Jaquan Brisker at safety?
Penn State's secondary received a massive boost when Jaquan Brisker announced he was returning for a third season at Penn State. Now the Nittany Lions must decide who will start alongside one of the best returning safeties in college football. Ji'Ayir Brown — another Lackawanna product — was a player who earned a lot of buzz this spring. Jonathan Sutherland has also been spoken about positively by the coaching staff, and he's been an important leader for the Nittany Lions for a long time. Both are older guys who will view this as a crucial opportunity to earn a starting role. It should make for an interesting competition as the summer approaches.
Special Teams: Who returns kickoffs?
The Nittany Lions will lose one of their kickoff returners in Lamont Wade, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wade returned five kicks for Penn State lasts season and was the most effective from a yardage standpoint. Devyn Ford and Parker Washington each also returned five kickoffs for Penn State, with Jahan Dotson handling the bulk of the punt return duties. Penn State could opt to make Dotson a presence on the kickoff return team should they look to explore another option, and it wouldn't be surprising to see a different name emerge, either.
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