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8 Burning Questions for Penn State in 2021

Addressing the key questions for the Nittany Lions as they seek to right the ship in 2021.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Pitt at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So, what’s happening with the quarterback situation?

This seemed to be the biggest question mark following the 2020 season, although the dust has settled as fall quickly approaches. Sean Clifford returns for his third year as a starter, but must improve after regressing a season ago. Clifford entered the season looking to take the next step to become a top-tier quarterback - only to be plagued by turnovers and inconsistency. He even lost his starting job midway through the season, only to earn it back after one week. Things did improve from there, as Clifford threw five touchdowns and just one interception as the team ended the season with a four-game winning streak.

While James Franklin maintained the competition would be open, Clifford is the only experienced option returning to the team. Will Levis is now with Kentucky, and backup Ta’Quan Robinson has just one pass in a Penn State uniform - an incompletion against Rutgers in 2019. The only other scholarship quarterback on the roster is incoming freshman Christian Veilleux.

Here’s hoping for a major step forward by Clifford this spring.If not, it likely spells major trouble for the offense.

Will there be a running-back-by-committee approach, or will one ballcarrier separate himself?

While there are some options to carry the load, the running back position has too much talent to use one primary option. Noah Cain is back from the injury that kept him off the field for all but one series of 2020. Keyvone Lee established himself as a true freshman, rapidly improving from week to week as he proved he can do a little bit of everything. Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes both have major playmaking ability and will look to take on a larger role in 2021. There’s also Jon Lovett, the speedy Baylor transfer who can add another layer to the offense. There may not be enough carries to go around, but it’s a good problem to have.

Which transfers will make an instant impact?

Let’s start with cornerbacks John Dixon of South Carolina and AJ Lytton, formerly of Florida State. The Penn State secondary has been the soft spot of the defense for years, and some talented additions could finally help change that. Dixon is coming off a sophomore season where he started eight games for the Gamecocks, making 34 tackles and five pass breakups. Lytton was the 50th overall player in the 2018 recruiting class, playing in 22 games for the Seminoles before taking a year to determine his next step following the shortened 2020 season. If the pass defense struggles again, it won’t be because of a lack of experience and talent.

Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie could have a huge impact at defensive end this fall, especially with First-Team All Big Ten awardees Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney both playing on Sundays. Ebiketie emerged as a major playmaker for the Owls in 2020, producing four sacks, 8.5 TFLs, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery that he brought back for a touchdown.

What about incoming freshmen?

Cornerback Kalen King received non-stop buzz throughout spring camp, following it up by picking off two passes in the Blue-White Game. He sure seems to be the real deal by all accounts. Kicker Sander Sahaydak could see the field early if returning starter Jake Pinegar struggles as he has at times during the past three seasons. And while he may not play much this season, Christian Veilluex is one of just three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Considering the fact that Clifford is the lone quarterback with experience, and they he lost his job at one point in 2020 before regaining it, Veilluex will need to be prepared to take the field at any moment this fall.

Which game should be circled on the calendar?

Ohio State on Oct. 30. Duh.

Penn State hasn’t defeated the Buckeyes since 2016, and any hopes of winning the Big Ten crown and the program’s first playoff berth go through Ohio State. While the Buckeyes will need to replace several key starters and will be fielding an inexperienced quarterback, we all know well enough that the Buckeyes roster is well-stocked, and turnover will not impact them as much as we may hope.

Which opponent could be more dangerous than we expect?

The week two contest against Ball State won’t be a typical MACrifice where the Nittany Lions get a chance to fine tune things and clear the bench. The Cardinals finished 2020 ranked at #23, and return nearly all starters on both sides of the ball. This game is giving me very serious 2012 Ohio vibes, as Ball State could be fieldling its best squad in school history as they seek a program-defining victory. It also doesn’t help that this game is sandwiched between match-ups with Wisconsin and Auburn. Ball State could easily be competitive for all four quarters, and could very well leave Happy Valley with a victory.

Will Penn State’s defense improve?

Absolutely. The defense seemed lost at times for the first half of the season, and certainly wasn’t helped by constantly being put in bad spots by the offense. It also didn’t help that several players were thrust into action early last year. Those players learned on the job and gradually improved, while the likes of linebacker Brandon Smith and safety Jaquan Brisker took star turns during the season, setting up potential All-American seasons for them in 2021.

Including some of the aforementioned transfers, Penn State will have more talent and much more experience than a year ago. The key will be to develop a couple of the young defensive ends to ensure a consistent pass rush.

Is another losing season a possibility?

I hate to even bring this up, but it needs to be asked if you’re coming off a year with more losses than wins. Sure, it’s possible but it seems highly unlikely when looking back and looking ahead.

Let’s start off with the circumstances from last year. There was no spring ball, leaving the new offense to be installed via Zoom. This has an absolutely cataclysmic effect on the development of players, especially the several that were seeing significant playing time for the first time in 2020. Then there was the unexpected departures to the “impact players.” Micah Parsons, who seemed poised to be the nation’s best overall defensive player, decided to forgo the season when it appeared it likely wouldn’t occur in the fall. Then Journey Brown, who had legitimate All-American hopes, was forced to retire due to a heart condition. His replacement, Noah Cain, was then injured on the opening drive of week one and lost for the season. Shortly after, Pat Freiermuth, a legitimate Mackey Award hopeful as the nation’s top tight end, was also lost for the season. James Franklin was separated from his family to help keep his daughter safe, no doubt weighing heavily on him. Then there was the chaotic start which ended in a dramatic loss to Indiana, and seemed to suck the wind out of the team for the first half of the season.

While the 2020 team certainly could have done a better job of bouncing back, the set of circumstances made the poor results nearly inevitable.

The silver lining, however, is that many players who were forced into early action in 2020 now return in much better shape after learning on the fly a year ago. There’s also optimism surrounding new offensive coordinator and “quarterback whisperer” Mike Yurcich. He’s been high on Franklin’s list for years, and has led incredibly productive offenses during his short career. While there are some question marks, especially along the defensive line and quarterback, most position groups appear deeper and more talented than a year ago. And as we like to say around these parts - the offensive line should be a strength this year.