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Opportunity Will Be Knocking in the Outback Bowl

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Which young Nittany Lions could use the Outback Bowl as a springboard into 2022 and beyond?

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

When Penn State suits up for their Outback Bowl matchup with Arkansas this Saturday there will be plenty of young Nittany Lion players with an opportunity to turn heads. Due to opt outs and injuries many starters/regulars will not be playing this Saturday.

With opportunity knocking, which young Nittany Lions have the best opportunity to make an impact and turn some heads this Saturday? Luckily for you, via position groups, we’re going to take a look at that today!

DEFENSIVE LINE

The position group with the greatest opportunity for young players to make a difference is the defensive line. Between injuries, opt outs, and Jesse Luketa likely having to play linebacker, Penn State could be without their preseason top six defensive linemen on Saturday.

Both D’Von Ellies and Coziah Izzard found themselves playing largely than expected roles at defensive tackle in the regular season, now all signs point toward them being the starting duo against Arkansas. JUCO transfer Jordan van den Berg and redshirt freshmen Fatorma Mulbah and Amin Vanover should all have opportunities to see plenty of playing time.

Mulbah, van dne Berg and Vanover all saw sporadic play time during the regular season. Additionally, all three are players the coaching staff has high hopes for in 2022 and beyond. Saturday could see all three play a new career high in snaps.

Like defensive tackle, defensive end will also see plenty of reps to go around. With Luketa likely sliding back to linebacker for the game while Arnold Ebiketie sits out in preparation for the NFL Draft, Nick Tarburton and Smith Vilbert appear to be in line to start. Zuriah Fisher should also see plenty of reps, and Vanover could slide out to defensive end.

While a lot of reps for Tarburton is not a complete change from regular season games, he will likely be in line for a season high in reps. Vilbert will see a huge increase in playing time, as will Fisher who could really be the one to watch. Fisher has a very high ceiling as an EDGE player and was my favorite defensive player not named Curtis Jacobs in Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class. The Outback Bowl could prove to be a coming out party for Fisher.

SAFETY

With Jaquan Brisker opting out of the game and Jonathan Sutherland moving up to linebacker the door will be open at safety. Starting beside Ji’Ayir Brown will likely be junior Keaton Ellis. After moving to safety in the offseason Ellis missed time early in the season which may have hindered his development at the position some. With the starting job opposite Brown wide open entering 2022, this could be an opportunity for Ellis to start to put a down payment on that job.

True freshman Jaylen Reed will also be one to watch at safety in the Outback Bowl. As the regular season progressed Reed’s playing time steadily increased. While a long-term home at SAM linebacker can not ruled out for Reed, he should see plenty of reps at safety on Saturday afternoon with an opportunity to put himself in position for a big role in 2022.

LINEBACKER

It will be very curious to see what happens for the Nittany Lions at linebacker in the Outback Bowl. Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith have both opted out of the bullpen game, leaving Curtis Jacobs as the lone starter available. Due to this it appears that the aforementioned Luketa and Sutherland will see plenty of reps at linebacker.

This would be more intriguing if true freshmen Jamari Buddin and Kobe King did not already play their four game max which still allows them to redshirt, as both appear to have a big future in Happy Valley and would be fun to watch. Charlie Katshir and Tyler Elsdon will likely see extend reps at linebacker as well, especially when the Nittany Lions are in three linebacker sets. While Katshir is not a young player, Elsdon is a young linebacker the staff remains high on and, while he still has growing to do, could flash way the staff feels that way.

WIDE RECEIVER

After weeks of expecting the news, Jahan Dotson officially opted out of the Outback Bowl on Monday. This will open up a starting spot at wide receiver for the Outback Bowl, which will likely go to Malick Meiga.

Throughout the summer people inside the Lasch Building raved about Meiga and his future. An injury slowed him early in the season, but by the end of the season he was seeing increased reps in games including a 67-yard touchdown catch against Rutgers. The staff is very high on Meiga and he will play an increased role in 2022, that increased role will begin on Saturday.

While it is a bit different due to spending the season as a starter, KeAndre Lambert-Smith is one to watch as well. The true sophomore will see an increased role with Dotson out. He solidified himself as a strong no. 3 wide receiver this season. Even with Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley set to join the fold the Nittany Lions will need KLS to take another step next season. Saturday afternoon KLS will have the opportunity to begin to take that step.

OFFENSIVE LINE

While there are no known opt outs on the offensive line, starting left Rasheed Walker showed up to Tampa on crutches after missing the end of the regular season. So it is safe to say the Nittany Lions will be without him.

This opens the door for redshirt freshman Olu Fashanu to make his first collegiate start. Fashanu is a player the Nittany Lion coaching staff is high on and, developmentally, is the furthers along of the five offensive linemen the Nittany Lions signed in their 2020 recruiting class.

Fashanu likely has a bright, bright future ahead at left tackle for the Nittany Lions. Saturday afternoon should present Fashanu with an opportunity to begin to give fans the staff a glimpse into that future.