THE RUNNING GAME
One of my flaws when it comes to Penn State football is that I always like the offensive line more than most heading into the season. Well folks, this year isn’t any different as I’m a big fan of what offensive line coach Phil Trautwein can throw out there this season.
Let’s start at offensive tackle: Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace. Just from a physical and athletic perspective, I don’t know the last time Penn State had two offensive tackles with Walker and Wallace’s gifts. Walker is 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, while Wallace is 6-foot-5, 323 pounds, but both move like guys much smaller than them. They are the level of athletes that won’t be hurt by future combine performances.
Offensive tackle is much more than physical and athletic gifts, though. Both Walker and Wallace had good seasons last year, with Walker earning third-team All-Big Ten honors and Wallace cementing his spot as the starter at right tackle. While Walker has been getting pub for being a potential first-team All-Big Ten tackle this coming season, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least bit if Wallace too pushes for similar honors. Really exciting duo on the ends.
On the inside, there might be a few more question marks about who will be starting, but this feels like a case of legitimately having 6 or 7 starting-worthy players. We know for sure that Mike Miranda will one of the starters, making the move from guard to center. It’s an ideal move for the veteran Miranda who will be a three-year starter, and is coming off second team All-Big Ten honors himself.
Who starts next to Miranda is the question. Any of Juice Scruggs, Harvard transfer Eric Wilson, Sal Wormley, Des Holmes, or Anthony Whigan could lay claim to one of the starting guard spots. While I think it’s likely that a couple of these guys see legitimate playing time, put me down for Juice Scruggs and Eric Wilson as the “starters.” Scruggs might be the most athletic offensive guard on the roster, while Wilson brings a unique amount of experience having played at Harvard the last couple seasons.
While the offensive line is a supremely important part of the running game, part of what I like here is what Penn State has at running back. There’s some really good depth here with Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, Baylor transfer John Lovett, Caziah Holmes, and Devyn Ford. But honestly, I’ve been less focused on the depth recently and more focused on the possibility that Noah Cain might just be a superstar running back. We’ve been spoiled here at Penn State with some stupidly talented running backs, and I’ve been getting that feeling that Cain might join the “stupidly talented” group after/during this season. Please say healthy. Please.
Honestly, I felt like I’ve spent half the offseason just fawning over the cornerbacks, so as much as this is just repeating myself, I can’t talk about what I like about Penn State heading into the 2021 season without mentioning them again.
First and foremost, there is a ridiculous amount of experience at the spot. Five players — Tariq Castro-Fields, Joey Porter Jr, Marquis Wilson, Keaton Ellis (who is now at safety, though could still see some time at corner), and South Carolina transfer Johnny Dixon — have all started games during their college careers. 43 combined starts amongst the five of them, which Captain Point Out The Obvious here, but that is truly unforeseen in college football at a position like cornerback.
But it’s more than just the experience I like; it’s the talent. Tariq Castro-Fields could be on an NFL team right now if he wanted to. Joey Porter Jr will be on an NFL team soon. Marquis Wilson might have the best ball skills of any corner on the roster. Johnny Dixon adds even more length to the unit, with a lanky 6-foot frame. Toss in Daequan Hardy and the ever-promising freshman Kalen King, and there’s just this ideal mixture of talent, experience, and depth that is really unmatched across the roster.
I think the biggest question for the corners will be if they can turn solid, sound play into game-changing plays — i.e., interceptions. It’s an area that has been a struggle for Penn State since Franklin took over. This is where the Nittany Lions have finished in interceptions against the rest of the conference.
- 2014: 3rd
- 2015: 10th
- 2016: 8th
- 2017: T-7th
- 2018: T-6th
- 2019: T-8th
- 2020: 11th
I think that’ll be the key for if this unit is “good” or if it’s “great.” With the way the game is played nowadays, it’s difficult to keep really good passing attacks down. The days of facing an elite passing attack and keeping the QB under 200 yards are over. But the one thing that still needs to be done: create turnovers. And sure, “interceptions” aren’t a cornerback singular stat, but they’ll help tell the story on just how good-or-great this unit will be.
First things first, I don’t necessarily mean this as a slight to Kirk Ciarrocca. Considering he had no spring to implement his offense, and it sounded like full, normal practices were few and far between during the season itself — that’s an incredibly difficult scenario no matter who the offensive coordinator would have been. But I have to say, with as little bias as possible, that his offense just seemed too slow. I get the argument for and against that type of offense, but it really forces the offense to maximize the limited opportunities that arrive. When you aren’t an elite offense, that can really hinder a team.
So with the above being the case, consider me excited to see what Yurcich can do. The more I’ve done research on him and have listened to him speak, the more I like them because here’s the thing: the best college football coaches are psychopaths. Nick Saban: psycho. Urban Meyer: psycho. James Franklin tries to give off the vibe of goofy dad and husband, but that guy is a psycho. I think Yurcich has similar qualities. Like if he takes his kids to Disney World, he’s zoned out for 50% of the trip because he’s thinking about some jet sweep that didn’t work on a 3rd and 3 from his Edinboro days. I like that.