The Offensive Line Won’t be a Strength
Let’s cut the charade. The past several offseasons have been filled with optimism about the offensive line finally turning the corner. The reasons make sense - the unit is packed with four and five stars. There’s experience across the board. There’s much more depth than years prior. Yet, the offensive line continues to hold the offense back.
This year that optimism is hard to find. There have been too many years of falsely getting hopes up, just to see the same flaws upfront as the previous year. The unit will need to replace three starters from a group that was already struggling mightily. There are also severe depth concerns, with just Bryce Effner as the only projected backup with any experience. Things could go from bad to worse after a few inevitable injuries throughout the season.
Figuring out the running game
Penn State’s ground game was nothing short of atrocious in 2021. The team was near the bottom of the nation - finishing 118 out of 130 - by averaging just 107.8 yards per game. Short-yardage situations proved nearly impossible, to the point that a fake field goal was called on 4th and goal from inside the two against Michigan (the fake ended in utter disaster, by the way). The offensive line couldn’t get any push, and when they did open up holes, the backs still found a way to run directly into a wall of defenders.
Jon Lovett and Noah Cain are gone after ineffective performances in 2021. Devyn Ford was yet to make himself an instrumental part of the offense, and his time may have past as he enters his fourth season. Keyvone Lee is the top returnee, and has shown effective as a north-south runner, but has tried to do too much by trying to break for the big play only to get nowhere fast. Caziah Holmes is the wildcard as he is coming off a redshirt season. While his experience is limited, his athleticism is undeniable.
There is immense hope that Nick Singeleton, the top running back of the 2022 class and Gatorade National Player of the Year, can come in and immediately right the ship. But that’s quite a lot to ask for a true freshman as he breaks into the Big Ten.
The Health of Sean Clifford
Remeber that feeling in the first quarter of the Iowa game when the offense was racing up and down the field against a supposedly impenetratable defense? It seemed like the Nittany Lions were prepping for big things with a Big Ten championship and playoff berth in sight. Then Clifford exited the game, and everything fell apart. The Hawkeyes eventually came back as Penn State’s offense turned listless, handing the Nittany Lions their first ‘L’ of the season which ended with a 2-6 freefall.
Clifford may not be perfect, throwing the occasional baffling interception or misfiring on a wide open receiver. But he had finally found some consistency and comfort in the offense and was in the midst of a special season before things went south. He was forced back into action way too soon, as backup Taquan Roberson proved completely ineffective (Roberson has since transferred to UCONN). Clifford dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season, and was clearly not himself without the ability to run the ball. He needs both to be fully effective to open up the offense and keep defenses on their toes. Without that element, the offense is much easier to gameplan against.
There’s no denying Clifford has proven his toughness over and over during his Penn State career. But staying healthy for a full season of colliding with Big Ten defenders is an awfully tall task.