Wide receiver is in good hands moving forward
Jahan Dotson opting out of the bowl game created opportunity for young wide receivers to be able step up. While KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington have both played a lot of football the last two seasons, they’re still young players who will need to step up in the absence of Dotson next season.
Saturday afternoon both receivers did just that. KLS had a coming out party by hauling in 3 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. He also came close to making a remarkable sideline catch in the end zone for a would be second touchdown.
As for Washington, in his first game as WR1 he led the team in receptions (7) and receiving yards (98). This included a remarkable one-handed grab by Washington that saw him do his best Dotson impression.
Youngster Malick Meiga and Tre Wallace also saw a career high in snaps in the game. If one of those two can take a step between now and the start of next season, which Meiga already appears to be doing, then Penn State’s wide receiver room will be in great hands, especially once you factor in Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley.
Ji’Ayir Brown will be an all-conference level player in 2022
In his first game as Penn State’s top guy at safety Ji’Ayir Brown capped off his breakout season with another great game. Following his performance in the Outback Bowl the former Lackawanna Falcon looks ready to be one of the best safeties in the Big Ten in 2022.
After leading the Nittany Lions in interceptions in the regular season Brown recorded two more in the bowl game. Both of his interceptions came at crucial times, too. His first came in the end zone thwarting an Arkansas scoring threat and the second came with the Razorbacks driving and in field goal range right before the half. Without Brown’s interceptions, the Razorbacks likely would’ve have scored at least 10 more points.
Brown was all over the field, including multiple open field tackles that prevented first downs/bigger gains by the Razorbacks. While Penn State will have a lot to replace on defense next fall, Brown is a great building block to have.
Linebacker play will need some help
Penn State’s linebackers struggling on Saturday probably should not come as a surprise. After all, it was a unit that battling inconsistency throughout the season and was without both Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith.
This led to Jesse Luketa sliding from defensive end back to MIKE linebacker. In his likely swan song with the Nittany Lions the Canadian native had probably the best game of his career at linebacker.
Curtis Jacobs looked like a man on a mission in the Outback Bowl and capped off a season that saw him start to flash his five-star talent with a strong showing. Outside of Jacobs and Luketa, the linebacker play left a lot to be desired.
Jonathan Sutherland, to his credit, always gives everything he has, but at his best Sutherland is an average player at the Big Ten level. Charlie Katshir struggled with being in position and Tyler Elsdon looked like a player that is still another year or two away.
Next season the Nittany Lions will add Kobe King and Jamari Buddin who redshirted this season to the mix. The staff will also hit the portal hard for at least one linebacker this season.
Young defensive linemen mostly played well
Penn State knew they would be without PJ Mustipher, Hakeem Beamon and Adisa Isaac on Saturday. Factor in opt outs from Derrick Tangelo and Arnold Ebiketie, as well as Luketa having to slide to linebacker and the Nittany Lions were without their top six defensive linemen from the preseason.
Obviously this led to the defensive line depth being tested. To the credit of John Scott Jr.’s group they stepped up, and, overall, played pretty well. Smith Vilbert struggled reading/defending option plays well, but made up for it with two sacks. Nick Tarburton had his best game of the season with multiple tackles for a loss, Zuriah Fisher flashed at times, and the Coziah Izzard/D’Von Ellies combination continued to look stout in the middle.
For most of the game Arkansas tried to line up and run it right at the Nittany Lions. Outside of a three drive stretch in the third quarter, the Nittany Lion defense held up pretty well against the run all things considered. That started up front. The defensive line should be in good shape in 2022, especially with Isaac and Beamon rejoining the fold, as well as the injection of borderline five-star EDGE rusher Dani Dennis-Sutton.
There is a long offseason ahead for the offense
Last offseason James Franklin made a big splash when he brought in the highly regarded Mike Yurcich to replace Kirk Ciarrocca as offensvie coordinator. While the running game struggled all season, prior to Sean Clifford’s injury the passing attack was humming along. In the second half of the season, however, nothing seemed to work on offense for Yurcich and the Nittany Lions.
After putting up just 10 points in the Outback Bowl, it is time for the offense to press reset.
Sean Clifford took steps forward in 2021. However, injury or otherwise, he started to regress into bad habits in the second half of the season. Next fall the Nittany Lions need to get the Clifford they had in the first 6 games for all 12. If Clifford does not do this, then Franklin needs to be willing to pull the plug and give Christian Veilluex or Drew Allar a chance.
While Taylor Stubblefield’s wide receiver room appears to be in great shape, Ty Howle and tight ends need to take a look in the mirror. It is a very talented room that vastly underachieved in 2021.
The biggest thing the offense must do this offseason is figure out the running game. Penn State did not have a single running back go over 100 yards in a game this season. Against Arkansas, they averaged just 4.5 yards per carry while rushing for 125 yards.
For most of the season Noah Cain still did not look healthy. If he can get completely healthy this offseason while Keyvone Lee takes another step forward, once you factor in five-star Nick Singleton who is the top rated high school running back in the country then lack of talent/ability should not be an issue at running back next season.
For the entire offense, however, it will start up front. Penn State’s offensive line needs completely overhauled after the disaster that was the 2021 season. That should start with Phil Trautwein being fired. If Trautwein is retained, this will be a vital offseason for him as his job will almost assuredly be on the line entering 2022.
There is some smoke that Rasheed Walker will return next season. While he struggled in 2021, Penn State needs all the bodies they can get at offensvie tackle. It would also be a huge boost for the Nittany Lions if they could add an offensive tackle through the transfer portal, allowing them to slide Caedan Wallace inside to guard where he is much better suited. It could also allow them to play the highly touted Landon Tengwall inside instead of out at tackle.
Regardless of how it’s done, the offensive line must be fixed this offseason as it is the biggest question mark on an offense that has a soul searching type of offseason ahead.