Penn State Football’s Five Under the Radar Weapons Entering 2022
Although the Nittany Lions are coming off a disappointing campaign categorized by a six-loss conclusion across their final eight matchups in 2021, James Franklin’s squad possesses no shortage of returning talent heading into his ninth go-around this fall.
Between Sean Clifford, Parker Washington, PJ Mustipher, and Curtis Jacobs, Penn State’s proven group of returning starters stands as one of the Big Ten’s fiercest collections of upperclassmen contributors. However, there are also a flurry of Nittany Lions who haven’t garnered the same amount of preseason recognition and are set to fly under the radar this upcoming slate.
While several players could fit the distinction as valuable assets prepped to jump into larger roles, here are five Nittany Lions entering 2022 as under-the-radar pieces who could eventually morph into key weapons for Franklin’s group.
Despite Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson receiving more snaps in Mike Yurcich’s newly-implemented system last fall, both tight ends failed to match Tyler Warren’s versatility displayed at the position in limited action.
Almost immediately upon cracking the Nittany Lions’ early-season rotation, the former high school quarterback found success in a personalized goal line package where he scored a pair of rushing touchdowns against Auburn and Villanova, respectively.
Warren’s receiving production lacked substance in 2021, consisting of only five catches for 61 yards. However, the Virginia product’s pass-catching ability shined the brightest in pivotal moments, including Penn State’s late-game push against Michigan.
With less than eight minutes remaining in the squad’s date with the Wolverines, Warren hauled in a highlight-reel one-handed snag at the expense of defensive back DJ Turner. The play helped the Nittany Lions tie the game at 14-a-piece, but the upset bid ultimately fell short on a crucial defensive breakdown down the stretch.
Additionally, Warren capped off an impressive spring practice period by nabbing the Frank Patrick Total Commitment award for his efforts in the weight room and on the practice field. While the tight end room certainly possesses its fair share of depth, adding Warren into the fold on a basis of consistency should only bolster Penn State’s offensive attack.
In Terry Smith’s eight years at the helm of the Nittany Lions’ cornerback corps, his unit boasted one of its best season outputs to date a year ago — largely thanks to Daequan Hardy’s stout play on the backend.
Penn State finished third across the Big Ten in total pass defense, by allowing just 199.8 yards through the air on a weekly basis in 2021. While Joey Porter Jr. and Tariq Castro-Fields stole most of the limelight, Hardy put together a solid sophomore campaign of his own behind making only one start.
The former three-star prospect appeared in all 13 contests for Franklin’s crew last season, and seemingly put up quality numbers every time he touched the turf. In total, the Pittsburgh native notched 15 total tackles, two interceptions, and one sack as a reserve.
With the Nittany Lions’ cornerback stable set to undergo a rebuild in 2022, Hardy should morph into a plug-and-play starter beginning week one in West Lafayette, Indiana against Purdue. After all, Hardy did warrant an All-Big Ten honorable mention nod from Pro Football Focus ahead of several teammates who surpassed him in overall snaps played.
When discussing the outlook for Penn State’s projected starting wide receiving core, the same three names are often listed in unison between Parker Washington, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley to headline the group. However, big-play threat Malick Meiga could likely jump into the rotation without drop-off based on his knack for the big play, as seen in short spurts during the latter half of 2021.
After sitting out for the entirety of the Nittany Lions’ COVID-19 hindered slate in 2020, Megia saw action in just four games as a redshirt freshman last season. But, in matchups the Canadian appeared in, his 6’4”, 200-pound frame helped him explode for a 26-yard per catch average. While the sample size is small, Meiga’s skillset has drawn similarities to past big-bodied receivers who donned the blue and white in Allen Robinson and Juwan Johnson.
In the case of Robinson, who competed with the Nittany Lions at an eerily similar build standing at 6’3” and weighing 210-pounds, he also went through a learning curve at the beginning of his career in Happy Valley. During his first year on the field for Joe Paterno’s squad in 2011, Robinson struggled by hauling in just three receptions for 29 yards in 11 games.
The next campaign, which happened to be Bill O’Brien’s first season at the helm, helped launch Robinson into a 77-catch run over 12 games, resulting in 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns behind the steady arm of Matt McGloin. Like Robinson, Meiga also has the services of an experienced upperclassman quarterback in Sean Clifford at his disposal in 2022.
While Megia has a trio of highly-touted pass catchers currently ahead of him on the depth chart, there’s no reason the Canadian pass catcher shouldn’t make a massive leap entering his third year with Franklin’s program.
In the absence of PJ Mustipher following his abrupt season-ending lower-body injury suffered against Iowa last season, the Nittany Lions were exposed by poor play across the defensive line in their following matchups.
The next week, Illinois entered the confines of Beaver Stadium and ran wild for 357 yards on the ground for nearly six yards per carry. To stave off the injury bug, John Scott Jr. turned to redshirt freshman Coziah Izzard to man Mustipher’s former role. Although it’s nearly an impossible task to replace the presence of a three-year starter and a captain, Izzard admirably stepped up in the final six regular-season matchups.
In total, the rising redshirt sophomore tallied 21 total tackles in 11 games, including three takedowns for loss, a pair of sacks, and one forced fumble. Notably, Izzard put together his most complete effort of the season in relief of nearly two dozen Nittany Lions who suffered through flu-related symptoms throughout the week leading up to the Rutgers matchup.
Against the Scarlet Knights, the former four-star exploded for four crucial stops, a sack, and his lone forced fumble of the season. Heading into his third season on campus, Izzard is likely prepped to start alongside Mustipher at defensive tackle. However, proven commodities in Hakeem Beamon and D’Von Ellies should be right on his heels throughout the onset of the preseason camp period.
The combination of Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir brown at safety for the Nittany Lions helped account for eight interceptions and three fumble recoveries in 2021. While it would be a near-impossible task for Anthony Poindexter’s crew to continue its historical tear at the same rate it did last year, second-year product Zakee Wheatley may help the unit pick up some steam without Brisker’s services in the backend this time around.
Aside from Brown, who finished tied for first nationally in interceptions with six during his second year representing the blue and white, many entered the spring believing the combination of Jaylen Reed and Keaton Ellis would endure a head-to-head battle to compete for the final starting role across from the Lackawanna College product. However, after Wheatley’s smooth transition from cornerback to safety, the race isn’t quite as clear-cut.
During Wheatley’s esteemed high school career for Archbishop Spalding in Maryland, the ballhawk snagged six interceptions in just 23 games on the defensive side of the ball. Wheatley’s knack for finding the ball has consequently improved with Penn State, as the safety room’s new-found prodigy was crowned the program’s “Takeaway King” during spring ball.
“It was great getting [Wheatley] in the room,” Poindexter said last month. “I think we felt as a staff he could do it at corner, but his more natural position is at safety. He came in, and picked right up.”
At 6’2”, Wheatley possesses elite size at a position where the Nittany Lions noticeably lack length. With three viable options to replace Brisker after his All-American campaign to cap of his Penn State career a year ago, the safety room appears to be in good hands entering a transitional period to begin 2022.