While much of the focus heading into the season is on starters like Brandon Smith or Adisa Isaac and the potential strides they’ll make, just as important for the Nittany Lions will be the play of some key reserves. It’s easy to look back on seasons like 2016 and remember the likes of Saquon Barkley or Brandon Bell, but that magical season doesn’t happen if players like Chasz Wright or Jordan Smith don’t step up in big ways when their number was called.
No season will go perfectly to plan, so with that being the case, at some point Penn State is going to have to depend upon non-starters for major snaps. Those guys — like Wright and Smith mentioned above — are what I like to call x-factors. Not necessarily guys that are primed for a breakout season, but rather players who do their job consistently, and when called upon, can step into a big role without having the offense/defense miss a beat.
DE Nick Tarburton
Tarburton’s has had an interesting career in Happy Valley. He looked pretty solid as a true freshman playing defensive end for the first time. Granted, he ended up redshirting after seeing action in just two games, but he showed that the pieces were there to be a Ryan Buchholz-esque type player. The following two seasons, Tarburton couldn’t quite breakthrough, struggling with hampering injuries along the way.
So here we find ourselves in 2021, and Tarburton appears to be healthy coming off a strong offseason. For Penn State, that will be much needed as the defensive end room is not as deep as it once was. It’s largely expected that Adisa Isaac and Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie will be the starters, but the 6-foot-3, 257-pound Tarburton should see a lot of the snaps behind them. Like Buchholz, I wouldn’t expect gaudy sacks and tackles for loss stats from Tarburton, but rather someone who brings extra physicality, sets the edge, and does the little things well.
RB John Lovett
It would be very surprising (injuries *knock on wood* aside) if Noah Cain isn’t RB1 for the Nittany Lions come September 4. What’s still up for debate is how the running back rotation shakes out beyond Cain, with Keyvone Lee, Caziah Holmes, and the Baylor transfer John Lovett all in the mix.
I like Lee a whole lot, but I’m going with Lovett here as the “x-factor” just because he brings with him something a little different. Cain — at 5-foot-10, 238 (!) pounds — is a power back like Lee is, so Lovett will give a bit of lightning to the thunder Cain and Lee will bring to opponents.
Is John Lovett going to be a blazer like Journey Brown? No, of course not. But he showed top-tier speed at Baylor, and from what I saw in the Blue-White Game “Senior Edition”, Lovett just has that little extra burst at the line of scrimmage that you really like to see from a running back.
Again, it’ll be in a backup type role to someone who could end up the best running back in the Big Ten, but I envision a lot of Lovett fans in Happy Valley come the fall.
CB Johnny Dixon
There’s not a spot on the roster that is better built to withstand some injuries than cornerback. Now hopefully, Penn State will stay healthy in the backend. But should an injury or two pop up, the Nittany Lions have some dudes to throw out there — from Marquis Wilson to Daequan Hardy to Kalen King to safety-but-still-playing-corner Keaton Ellis.
Really, there’s an argument that any of the above could come in to start for Tariq Castro-Fields or Joey Porter Jr., and the defense wouldn’t miss too much of a beat. But I’m going with another transfer product here: Johnny Dixon. I love his size at 6-foot-0, 188 pounds. I love the starting experience at South Carolina (even if it was for the poopy defense). I think in most other seasons, he’s pretty well locked in as one of the two primary starting cornerbacks, so to be able to call on someone like Dixon as depth — pretty nice spot for cornerbacks coach Terry Smith to be in.