Last week, we went over the good things about Penn State football heading into 2022. Today, let’s go Chief Keef and talk about what we don’t like about the Nittany Lions heading into the season.
This should come as no surprise for those that have followed the program this offseason. James Franklin has even said himself, multiple times, that linebacker is the biggest question mark on the defense. I have to say, I agree, James.
The Nittany Lions will be led by Curtis Jacobs, who did an admirable job at the SAM and will now be making the move to the WILL; Penn State’s other box linebacker position. As I’ve talked about already this offseason, I really think we see a breakout performance from Jacobs, and I think he’ll actually be an upgrade over Brandon Smith from last year. He’s athletic as all heck, he’s instinctual, and I think the transition from the SAM to the WILL should be seamless enough. Although, we have seen the good and the bad from that over the years — hello Brandon Bell and Koa Farmer.
The concern arrives after Jacobs, both at the MIKE, the SAM, and from a depth perspective. Let’s tackle each one individually.
At the MIKE, Tyler Elsdon and Kobe King battled it out this summer, with Elsdon coming out the starter — though Franklin did say that King will still “play a lot”. That’s cause for pause right there because the MIKE — like has been said so many times over the years — is the quarterback of the defense. I don’t love the idea that the spot that’s in charge of making the calls is being flipped-flopped every other series. Not to bring out another quarterback cliche, but if you have two middle linebackers, do you actually have none? And that pains me to say! I was a big fan of Elsdon as a recruit and thought King did some nice things during the bowl game, but the fact that neither guy was able to take job by the horns doesn’t make me warm and fuzzy inside.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Sutherland will be taking over at the SAM. From all accounts, Sutherland is the type of guy that every program wishes it had; hard-worker that’s clearly well-respected within the locker room by both the players and the coaches. I just don’t know that his archetype is one that has had a ton of success in the past — 5-foot-11, 211-pound former safety that has only started two games over five seasons with the program now being thrusted into a starting gig at a new position as a sixth-year senior. It’s just a big leap.
All that being said, I think Penn State will play a lot of 4-2-5 anyway so I think the amount of Sutherland—Elsdon—Jacobs we see will be limited. But man, the Nittany Lions are putting it all in Jacobs staying healthy because if he goes down, we’re talking redshirt freshman Jamari Buddin or true freshman Abdul Carter at the WILL. I’m a big fan of Carter in particular, but that would be a steep drop off for the 2022 season. There might be “better” players around the defense, but I don’t think Jacob’s value could be any higher. Penn State can’t afford to lose him.
2. OFFENSIVE LINE
This is what I said last year in my article about “Three Things I Like About Penn State Heading Into 2021”:
“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.”
--Patrick Koerbler, goofy idiot, 8/20/21
Straight up: I’m not a smart person. I’m like the mouse in a science lab that keeps eating the cheese even though I get zapped each time. Oh, look Paris Palmer was a highly-touted JUCO. Zapped. Oh, Connor McGovern is going to be first-team All-Big Ten. Zapped. Oh, Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace could be the best tackle pairing in the Big Ten. Zapped.
I stand with James Franklin here: I am not going to say anything nice about the offensive line. In the past, I would point out that Olu Fashanu and Landon Tengwall is an extremely talented duo on the left side of the offensive line, and boasts some incredible size and length at 6-foot-6, 321 pound and 6-foot-6, 330 pounds, respectively. I would also point out that Juice Scruggs was in a major car accident just a few years ago so despite the fact he’s a 5th-year senior, he probably hasn’t hit his physical peak yet. Also, Sal Wormley probably would have started last year had he not gotten hurt during training camp. Lastly, Caedan Wallace with another offseason to fine-tune his technique at right tackle? Only good things ahead.
Fortunately for myself, I wouldn’t say those things this year because I don’t like the offensive line. So quit askin’.
3. TOO SOON
I mentioned this briefly in my 8-4 prediction for the 2022 season, but when I look at the program, I think it’s clear that Penn State is set up much better for 2023. If we go across the roster, here’s who I am 100% confident won’t be back next year:
- QB Sean Clifford (out of eligibility)
- WR Mitchell Tinsley (out of eligibility)
- DT PJ Mustipher (out of eligibility)
- LB Jonathan Sutherland (out of eligibility)
- S Ji’Ayir Brown (out of eligibility)
- CB Joey Porter Jr. (NFL Draft)
Now of course, there will be more early entrants to the NFL Draft than just Porter Jr. Certainly a couple of Parker Washington, Theo Johnson, Juice Scruggs, Adisa Isaac, Hakeem Beamon, and Curtis Jacobs will forgo their eligibility. Penn State will need a bit of
NIL deals luck in getting more than half of those guys to return, but I don’t sit here today and think any of those guys are 100% assuredly gone after this season.
Regardless, my main point is that outside of having a sixth-year quarterback, this team doesn’t pop out as a true contender unless Clifford makes the ever-mentioned Kenny Pickett-esque step. It’s talented and I think will compete with every team on its schedule, but it just lacks that extra pop in the way of known “game-breakers” to be in the hunt come November.