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Way-Too-Early 2021 Penn State Football Depth Chart: Offense

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Projecting what Mike Yurcich’s offense will look like in 2021.

Rutgers at Penn State Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As is tradition here at BSD, let’s take a look at a “Way-Too-Early” depth chart for the 2021 season. The offense will be today, while we’ll release the defense’s next Tuesday. Two things to note:

  1. A lot of the depth pieces can change within the next few days just based on the transfer portal. I’ll update this post if any major shakeups happen.
  2. With the 2020 season not counting for eligibility, it has really confused things on what to call someone like Parker Washington. Is he a sophomore? Is he a freshman? What about Sean Clifford: redshirt senior or redshirt junior? We’ll wait to see what Penn State Athletics ends up listing everyone at, but in the meantime, we are going to go with their eligibility as if 2020 counted; i.e. Parker Washington is a sophomore. Maybe that will still lead to confusion, but it’s at least consistent.

QUARTERBACK

Sean Clifford (RS SR) — Will Levis (RS JR) — Taquan Roberson (RS SO)

While the Nittany Lions have utilized the transfer portal for other positions like running back, defensive tackle and end, and cornerback, they have been quiet on the quarterback front. That’s likely for a valid reason, as to this point, there really haven’t been too many quarterbacks who would be an upgrade over the much-maligned Sean Clifford. The offseason is still young, but at this point, it is looking likelier and likelier that Cliff will be Penn State’s starting quarterback in 2021.

It’ll be a big spring for Cliff, as he’ll be learning the ins-and-outs of new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s offense. As we relayed a few weeks ago, expect Penn State to spread things out more, throw the ball more, and to go uptempo a whole lot more. It’ll be a big adjustment for Clifford (or any quarterback, really), so here’s to a healthy and productive spring.

RUNNING BACK

Noah Cain (RS SO) — John Lovett (SR) — Keyvone Lee (SO)

I think the running back room is one of the more underrated stories to follow this offseason. The top story to follow is Noah Cain and how he comes back from his undisclosed injury. We know it has to do with his foot or ankle — running back coach JaJuan Seider said in an interview back on November 12th that his injury in 2019 and 2020 were “ankle deals” — but details are sparse on how long he’ll be out there. The injury occurred on October 24, so if spring practice starts around the normal time of mid-March, that would give Cain just under five months of healing/rehab. So depending upon what the injury is — and the fact that, despite his inexperience in games, Cain is oddly enough a pretty proven commodity — I don’t think it would be surprising if Cain is extremely limited or even out for spring practice.

But as the saying goes, when one man goes down the next must step up. Penn State has quite a few options there. Let’s start with the Baylor grad transfer John Lovett. At 6-foot-0, 212 pounds, Lovett has really good size for a running back, but unlike Cain and sophomore Keyvone Lee, he brings an extra speed dimension to a potential running back rotation. I’ve seen some people say that Lovett has “elite” speed which I don’t quite agree with, but he certainly has the ability to run away from a lot of cornerbacks.

Lovett was a productive player for Baylor, being in the running back rotation during all four of his seasons in Waco. He was never the bonafide No. 1 back (the most carries he had in a season was 109 as a sophomore, which did lead the running backs for the Bears), but productive nonetheless. With the coaching change (shoutout Matt Rhule), Lovett had an off senior season — 45 carries for 130 yards (2.9 yards per carry) — but that was clearly an anomaly when you consider his play in 2017, 2018, and 2019: 310 carries for 1,673 yards (5.4 yards per carry).

Lovett won’t be gifted that No. 2 spot behind Cain, though. I loved what Keyvone Lee did when he was thrown into the fire, averaging 4.92 yards per carry. His detractors will point to his lack of speed, which sure, Lee probably isn’t taking a stretch play 80 yards to the house. But with a full offseason with Dwight Galt and the S&C staff (Lee wasn’t an early enrollee), and with the expectation that he’ll play, I’m excited to see how he transforms. You can’t teach his balance and natural power.

Let’s not forget junior Devyn Ford or sophomore Caziah Holmes, either. I think both are better fits for Yurcich’s offense (especially Ford) so the switch should serve them well.

WIDE RECEIVER

WR (X): Jahan Dotson (SR) — Malick Meiga (RS FR) — Lonnie White (FR)
WR (Y): KeAndre Lambert-Smith (SO) — Daniel George (RS JR) — Winston Eubanks (SR)
WR (Slot): Parker Washington (SO) — Liam Clifford (FR) — Jahan Dotson (SR)

As long as the injury bug doesn’t bite, it seems pretty obvious that Penn State’s starting wide receivers for the Wisconsin game will be the same players who started the final game of the 2020 season: Jahan Dotson, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and Parker Washington.

Dotson, of course, is fantastic. He’ll be a true contender for First Team All-Big Ten, and should push for national honors as well. Washington’s progression will be interesting to watch. The rub on him coming out of high school was that he would be ready right away, but is closer to being a finished product than other prospects. Even if that is the case, Washington has already established himself as a very good wideout, so it’s really about fine-tuning the little stuff. Also, he’s someone specifically who could really benefit from the Ciarrocca —> Yurcich change.

The questions at wide receiver, for me, begin with KeAndre Lambert-Smith. He was impressive as a freshman, as he flashed just how good he can be. But in all reality, he really shouldn’t have been playing last season. That was a move out of necessity due to a thin wide receiver room. Longterm-wise, it should definitely benefit Lambert-Smith — think Dotson coming on late in 2018 — but that doesn’t change the fact of how raw he looked, and just where he’s at in his development. Certainly reason for optimism, but he’s one of the main x-factors/wildcards/whatever you want to call it on this offense heading into 2021. Another full offseason under Dwight Galt and Taylor Stubblefield will serve him well.

Beyond the starters, the question marks conitnue. Daniel George has never been able to take the bull by the horns, and saw his playing time decrease as the season went on — he didn’t register a catch after the Iowa game. I’m officially off the Cam Sullivan-Brown hype train as you can see. Sorry, Cam, it’s not you; it’s me.

Penn State will hope to get some reinforcements from its youth — whether that be redshirt freshmen or true freshmen. On the redshirt side, Malick Meiga and Jaden Dottin both saw some run (note: like 5 plays) against Illinois. I listed Meiga above just because he’s 6-foot-4, runs a sub 4.45 forty, and has a 35+ inch vertical (see: PO-TEN-SHUL), but Dottin will certainly be in the mix, too. Plus with Meiga, Penn State sorely needs a deep threat, and if nothing else, Meiga provides a bit more upside in that respect.

I really like the 2021 wide receiver class Penn State is bringing in. I have Harrison Wallace slated for a redshirt, but Liam Clifford and Lonnie White should push for playing time. Clifford specifically is someone who I think plays right away; he’s pretty dang polished for a true freshman. White is a little more unpolished, to say the least, but he might be too good of an athlete to keep off the field. Also, will be the #thiccest wide receiver on the roster.

Name to keep an eye on: Shippensburg transfer Winston Eubanks. He was an All-PSAC performer in 2017, 2018, and 2019, totaling 148 receptions, 2,853 receiving yards, and 28 touchdowns during his career. Never know what you’ll get out of Division-II transfers (see: Weston Carr) but Eubanks is intriguing.

TIGHT END

Brenton Strange (RS SO) — Theo Johnson (SO) — Zack Kuntz (RS JR)

The Pat Freiermuth Era is over in Happy Valley, but fear not because the tight end room is still in good hands. When Freiermuth’s season ended after four games because of a shoulder injury, in stepped Brenton Strange who performed admirably. In his five starts, Strange caught 14 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. If we multiplied that out for a full-season (13 games) worth of games, that would mean Strange put up 36 receptions for 367 yards and five touchdowns — not too shabby for a redshirt frosh.

Strange doesn’t have elite size (he’s only 6-foot-3) nor does he have elite quickness or jump-out-of-the-gym hops, but he does everything well. He’s a good athlete, he runs clean routes, he’s an adequate blocker, and he rarely makes mistakes. He won’t be mistaken for the second coming of Mike Gesicki, but he has all-conference potential at some point in his career.

Pushing Strange will be sophomore Theo Johnson, who might actually be the second coming of Mike Gesicki. At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, Johnson is built like an NBA forward, and he moves like one too. Once Freiermuth went down, Johnson saw his snaps increase, and while he didn’t see the ball a ton (he had four catches, two a piece against Iowa and Illinois), he impressed during his playing time — especially his blocking. I don’t mean to say he’s Nick Bowers-esque, but the fact that he didn’t look completely outmatched and overwhelmed is a good sign he won’t be a liability in the future.

As much as I like Strange and would expect him to be TE1 heading into the season, I wouldn’t be stunned if this is closer to a 50/50 snap-split between the two. Johnson just has so much talent as a receiver that it will be tough to keep him off the field.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT: Rasheed Walker (RS JR) — Olu Fashanu (RS FR) — Ibrahim Traore (RS FR)
LG: Des Holmes (RS SR) — Anthony Whigan (RS SR) — Golden Israel-Achumba (RS FR)
C: Mike Miranda (RS SR) — Juice Scruggs (RS JR) — Nicholas Dawkins (RS FR)
RG: Juice Scruggs (RS JR) — Landon Tegnwall (FR) — Saleem Wormley (RS SO)
RT: Caedan Wallace (RS SO) — Bryce Effner (RS JR) — Jimmy Christ (RS FR)

I was buying stock on the 2021 offensive line when I thought Rasheed Walker was leaving, so now that the unit will have a three-year starter at left tackle — uh, yeah, I really like this group.

We can start with Walker who outside of injuries, is completely locked into the starting gig at left tackle. It was a solid season for Walker, who continued an upward trajectory from his redshirt freshman form. Now for Walker, it will be about taking his game to the #NextLevel (shout out 2013 Penn State Athletics marketing campaign). He’s capable of being the best left tackle in the Big Ten, it’s just a matter of making the necessary strides this offseason.

Opposite Walker will likely either be Caedan Wallace or Desmond Holmes — but expect it to be the former rather than the latter. Both have experience at tackle and guard, but Wallace took over as the starting right tackle for the Nebraska game and never surrendered the spot for the rest of the season. If a young guy like that is playing that well at a particular spot, I like the idea of keeping him there. Don’t mess with something good.

So if Walker is at left tackle and Wallace is at right tackle, there are three interior spots up for grabs. One of those spots will be for Mike Miranda, who was the starting left guard this year. A move to center seems to make sense for two reasons:

  1. He was the back-up center the past two seasons.
  2. He’s a redshirt senior, and generally speaking, having an experienced player at center is logical.

So let’s put Miranda at center. That leaves us with left guard and right guard vacant, and no returning starters. As you can see, I have Holmes and Juice Scruggs taking those spots, but which one is on the left versus the right is total guesswork. Both players saw snaps at left and right guard this season so it really could go either way. Regardless, I like the athleticism each brings on the interior — especially Scruggs. He’s still working on adding mass he lost after a car accident in early 2019, but he flashed during the late portion of 2020 when his playing time increased.

Holmes has seen snaps at left tackle in the past, and very well could have been the starting left tackle next season had Walker not returned. The fact Penn State gets to push him inside is, in a word, cool. Plus, I love the story of a fifth-year senior who has waited his time and now gets his chance.

Two names to keep an eye on that could push for a starting gig: former JUCO Anthony Whigan and true freshman Landon Tengwall. Despite being a JUCO product, Whigan came into Penn State quite underdeveloped from a strength standpoint, so this coming season (year three) will probably be the first one where he’s at where he needs to be physically.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Tengwall, who looked like a Division-I offensive lineman when he was in 10th grade. Seriously. A top 100 prospect, he’s as technically sound as any offensive lineman in the country, and he’s already enrolled in Happy Valley and will take part in all offseason activities. Would not be surprising in the least bit if he starts at some point for the Nittany Lions in 2021.