The Blue-White Game is in the rearview mirror, as are Tommy Steven’s chances at starting for the good guys this fall. Too soon? Either way, we’re now into the really real off season, with 4 more months to go until football returns. We once again visit our “3 Reasons For” series, starting today with the offense.
1. Sean Clifford is the Next Big Thing
Okay, so let’s get this out of the way up front: I had it firmly in my mind that Tommy Stevens would be the highlight of this paragraph when I envisioned the offense for 2019. I was on the Tommy Train for a long time, and seeing his train get mothballed before it even left the station is sad. I don’t know if trains get mothballed, but just go with it.
IN ANY CASE - it’s time for Sean Clifford.
Sean Clifford, in many ways, reminds me of Trace McSorley. A kid with loads of intangibles, a knack for winning, a fiery leadership style, and taking over the team as a redshirt sophomore? Last time that happened, very many good things happened for the Blue and White.
Clifford stands 6-foot-2 and weighs in at 218 pounds. He’s got a laser, rocket arm, is an expert at reading defenses, and is juuust shifty enough in the pocket to make defenses pay. If his performances in mop up duty and the Blue-White Game are any indication (they are), this kid is gonna be good. A career passer rating of 399.7 is *checks notes* firmly above average.
2. A Bunch of New Receivers
So, funny enough, this is usually a cause for concern. “Oh no, all of our pass catchers from last year are gone, no one will catch the ball!” Here’s the thing - for Penn State, that whole “no one will catch the ball” thing would have persisted if last year’s receivers DID all return.
The offense was plagued by drops, especially from the veterans. As a result, Trace McSorley seemed to lose some faith in the passing game, and opted to run a bit more than in years past. He took beating after beating, and his body finally gave out. It was, as the kids put it, not great, Bob.
Only one of the three starting receivers returns from last year’s corps in KJ Hamler. At the moment, Justin Shorter (he of dinged up fame) and Jahan Dotson will be your starters outside. Breakout tight end Pat “Moose” Freiermuth also returns, he of the big blocks and soft hands. On paper, that quartet of pass catchers should be really good, and they’ll be backed by some other quality receivers in Cameron Sullivan-Brown, Daniel George, and Nick Bowers. While the young players will take some time to break in, it’s hard to fathom the 2019 corps being any worse than the 2018 group.
3. Ricky Rahne is Older and Wiser
Ricky Rahne spent 2016 and 2017 learning the Joe Moorhead offense. Then JoeMo went to Stark Vegas, and Ricky got the nod to start. As a first-time offensive coordinator, there were some growing pains.
To Rahne’s credit, the opening bit of each half seemed to go well, when the plays were mostly scripted. It was after the first couple drives that the playcalling seemed to stagnate a bit. Getting a feel for when to call certain plays based on the game situation comes from experience. And you can’t get experience without getting experience, which is something Ricky found out last year.
The offense will have to be tweaked a bit, as Mr. Clifford is not as mobile as Mr. Stevens would have been, but I fully expect Rahne to put on a better overall show vs 2018. Truth be told, just a few extra first downs in 2018 late in a couple key games, and Penn State could very easily have gone 10-2 or 11-1. And yes, I know, there were games we could have lost as well, but did you READ the title of this post? Optimism people, optimism!
All this to say, Penn State scored 33.8 points per game in 2018, tied for 31st in the country, right at the top 25% in the mark. With a more experienced play caller, receivers who can actually catch the dang ball, and a quarterback with a knack for winning and a wicked arm, there’s no reason to think the Lions won’t push closer and closer to 40 PPG next year.
Honorable Mention - The Offensive Line
Look, you guys need to brace yourselves: it’s possible that Penn State may never actually have an absurdly dominant offensive line. At this point, I think it’s just a function of the offense the Lions run. And with 3-year starters Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern off to the NFL, sure, you could look at this as a cause for concern.
But their replacements should be 6-foot-6, 313 pound, former top 100 recruit Rasheed Walker at left tackle, and one of C.J. Thorpe or Mike Miranda at right guard, two of the meanest linemen Matt Limegrover has had to work with yet. While the line may never be on the same level as the 1994 road graders, these guys will keep the offense moving along just fine - if not a little better than last year.