Penn State will have All-Americans on all three levels of the defense
Let’s take a brief detour on the Way Back Machine back to the summer of ‘05. Despite the fact that Penn State was coming off a dreadful four-win season, the Nittany Lions had something special to build around with serious All-American candidates at defensive end, linebacker and cornerback. Penn State rode the strength of that defense all the way to a conference crown and Orange Bowl victory, as Tamba Hali went on to become a first-round pick, Paul Posluszny won the first of two Bendarik Awards as the nation’s best defensive player, and Alan Zemaitis went down as one of the top cornerbacks in program history.
There’s been plenty of star power on the Penn State defense since then, but not quite on all three levels as we look ahead to 2023. Defensive end Chop Robinson broke out as a true sophomore, becomming an absolute nightmare for anyone attempting to block him. He played an essential role in helping Penn State end the season with a top 10 scoring defense, disrupting play after play before anything could even materialize. Linebacker Abdul Carter showed the big play abilty I can’t recall ever seeing from a true freshman, and now the game will slow down for him even more in year two. Then there’s cornerback Kalen King, who regularly outplayed the 32nd overall player in the draft, Joey Porter Jr., and could very well be the best all-around cornerback in the nation heading into the fall.
At the very least, all three will be included in the three-deep All-American teams, and could very well each find their way as first-team All-Americans in December.
Abdul Carter wins the Butkus Award
While I clearly have high hopes for the three aforementioned players, Carter is the one who sticks out with the highest ceiling. Carter managed to lead the team in sacks and forced fumbles as a true freshman, while coming in second in tackles and TFLs. He also regularly showed the big-play ability that can shift momentum in the blink of an eye.
Carter showed up for spring practice transformed from a lanky freshman to someone with an NFL-ready body. He’ll be more advanced mentally in year two as well, and we can expect the type of plays that will send Beaver Stadium in a frenzy as the game continues to slow down for him. Carter will become a regular on the highligh reels, making a name for himself as not just one of the nation’s top linebackers, but as THE top linebacker.
The Nittany Lions win in Columbus
I’ve gone on record several times since the infamous ‘4th and 5’ game against the Buckeyes in 2018 that I would not pick Penn State over Ohio State until they actually prove it on the field. So what am I doing here? Well, besides hopefully not making a giant blunder and creating needless buelletin board material?
Putting bias aside, I actually really like how Penn State matches up with Ohio State on paper this year - the first time I feel that way heading into the season since the ‘90s. The way Penn State matches up in the trenches has a lot to do with this. While the Buckeyes will once again have a defensive line full of freakish NFL-bound players, the Nittany Lions offensive line should finally, FINALLY be able to at least hold their own. It will be the first time in years they will be looking to find ways to win in spite of being vastly overmatched up front.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State is working to rebuild its offensive line with a first-year quarterback, while Penn State’s front seven is filled with the type of athletes that can create havoc from any direction.
Penn State also has closed the gap in the amount of playmakers found up and down the roster. While the Nittany Lions give a valiant effort each year, the Buckeyes always have a couple big plays up their sleeve to secure a victory. Penn State is now in a position where they can expect numerous players on each side of the ball to step up and make a play when it’s really needed, rather than pinning all their hopes on one or two potential difference-makers.
Manny Diaz will leave Happy Valley for a head coaching job at the end of the regular season
Ok, so maybe this prediction isn’t all that bold, but one that will have a major impact at the end of the season. Diaz didn’t get a fair shake during his time as head coach at Miami, which was proven further as the ‘Canes suffered a losing season with losses to Middle Tennessee State and Texas A&M, while getting their doors blown off by every ACC team with a pulse in 2022.
Meanwhile, Diaz was shaping a young defense into one of the most high-octane and fearsome units in the nation. By season’s end, they were completely shutting down capable offenses like they were facing off with a middling FCS opponent.
The defense should be even better in year two under Diaz when considering the returning and emerging talent, as well as everyone being more comfortable in a complex system that can’t be easy to pick up. He’s already on some radars, and will find himself on even more as the coaching carousel begins spinning again.
There will be a quarterback controversy heading into October
The competiton to replace Sean Clifford will come down to all-everything prospect Drew Allar and Beau Pribula, who continues to receive heavy praise for what he brings to the table on the field and in the locker room. However, it will be hard to imagine Allar not in the starting role when the season opens against West Virginia on September 2, considering his status as the backup in ‘22, his sky-high potential as the top quarterback in his class, as well as Allar far outpacing Pribula during April’s Blue-White Game.
Before you Allar fans start firing off angry emails in my direction, please note that this prediction comes from the circumstances surrounding Allar, rather than his ability to shine at quarterback.
Expectations will be way too high from the start for Allar under the center, just as they are for any five-star quarterback prospect. Fans will need to remember he’s human and will make mistakes, and it may take some time for him to get truly comfortable in the offense (remember Trace McSorley’s first month as starter?). To add to that, Penn State will face two of the nation’s toughest defenses in September - at Illinois in week three, then hosting Iowa in week four. Those games will test him and help him grow as a quarterback, but you can be certain the Illini and Hawkeyes will throw everything they can at him and pin their hopes of a victory on slowing down an inexperienced quarterback.
Allar will be the guy from start to finish, but not without some bumps along the way.
James Franklin will be linked to several high-profile openings (but will return in 2024)
Those near-annual rumors will continue despite Penn State locking in Franklin with a massive extension in late 2021. Franklin will once again be mentioned as a likely candidate for Texas A&M or Miami or Texas or Florida or whichever high-profile programs fling themselves into the coaching carousel early in the season. The pundits will argue that it will be time for Franklin to move on to greener pastures, at places that are more ready to compete for a national championship, or have a location more appealing to recruits than Central Pennsylvania, or land at a spot where they don’t have an Ohio State and Michigan in the same division. They’ll give many reasons that turn out to be wrong, with Franklin returning to the sidelines of Beaver Stadium once again in 2024.