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MMQB - 2021 Was a Wasted Opportunity

What might have been

Heather Weikel | Black Shoe Diaries

The NFL Draft was held this past weekend, and Penn State showed out.

Eight total Nittany Lions were drafted, and another five were signed as undrafted free agents following the draft.

For those who struggle with math, that’s 13 total players from the 2021 roster that are now NFL players.

It’s hard to see that number and not think that the 2021 season may have been a missed opportunity, and we may all look back and wonder what could have been.

It’s obvious that James Franklin is a good recruiter, and he has a solid support staff that continue to develop the players, turning them into pro prospects.

So why has the team struggled so much on the field since the Cotton Bowl following the 2019 season?

Is James Franklin just not a good game day coach? Is he good at the public facing portions of the job, but can’t cut it as an Xs and Os coach?

I think it chiefly has to do with two things: the offensive line, and general offensive coaching turnover.

As far as the offensive line goes, recruiting there is almost a shot in the dark. Big bodied kids with skills come out of high school every year, and without fail some of them just don’t pan out in college. OL may be the toughest group to prognosticate for recruiters, and while you can look back at all of the blue chip players Penn State has recruited, it’s certainly possible that the talent level simply wasn’t (isn’t?) there.

Coaching is another issue, specifically continuity. Up through the Cotton Bowl, the Lions had stuck with Matt Limegrover for 4 years, and the team had become exceptionally effective at running the ball. Pass pro was still a bit iffy, but when in doubt, Penn State could run run.

Then, almost inexplicably, Limegrover was cut loose, and Phil Trautwein was brought in. The results have been underwhelming, at best.

OL coaching turnover segues us nicely to offensive coaching turnover in general. Since 2016, Penn State has had four different offensive coordinators. How can any player feel comfortable and excel on offense when their entire scheme is changing every off season?

Contrast that with the defensive side. While the 2016-2021 span saw four different OCs, Brent Pry was the sole DC for that entire stint. Is it any real surprise, then, that Penn State returned as one of the best defenses in the country?

Surely, OL recruiting and development need to improve. But if the offense can just settle down for a few seasons and get some coaching continuity, all of these NFL-bound players may actually start getting the chance to shine.

Regardless, the 2021 team had plenty of talent on the roster. There’s no way that much talent should have gone 7-6. Were it not for an untimely injury to Sean Clifford, it’s entirely possible the team returns to double digit wins and gets back to a New Year’s Six bowl. But with as much pro-level talent the Lions had last year, I can’t help but think it was a wasted opportunity, injuries or not.

Here’s hoping we don’t say the same thing about 2022.