Penn State is going to look a lot different this year, and the debut of a new starting quarterback to replace record-setting three-year starter Trace McSorley is only the most obvious of the many changes in store.
In addition to their graduation losses, the Nittany Lions saw five starters leave early to enter the NFL Draft, while 11 players entered the transfer portal. Many of the transfers were older backups who had seen their career prospects diminish with the arrival of more highly rated recruiting classes over the past three years. But even so, that's a lot of attrition for one offseason, and James Franklin isn’t taking it lightly. "We've got a lot of question marks, obviously, with some of the guys we've lost," he says. "But I also think there's a lot of excitement for the upcoming season."
Previewing Penn State's Offense for 2019
Projected starting quarterback Tommy Stevens threw Penn State for a loop in April when he entered the transfer portal following spring practice. The fifth-year senior didn't gain a lot of experience backing up the famously durable McSorley for three seasons, but his 41 career passes are 34 more than the team's other four scholarship QBs combined. With Stevens gone, redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford will likely inherit the starting spot. He looked sharp in limited duty as a freshman, throwing for two touchdowns in only seven attempts. But he’s still a largely unknown commodity.
Compounding those transitional difficulties, the Lions need young players to step into major roles elsewhere on offense. KJ Hamler got off to a terrific start with 42 catches for 754 yards last year, but the only other returning wideout with more than 10 career catches is another sophomore, Jahan Dotson, who had 13 for 203 yards in 2018. Eight of the team's 12 scholarship receivers will have either freshman or sophomore eligibility this fall. The only upperclassmen are graduate transfer Weston Carr (formerly of Azusa Pacific), and former walk-ons Isaac Lutz and Dan Chisena, both of whom were put on scholarship in April. One potential breakout player in the passing game is tight end Pat Freiermuth.
The backfield is as young as the receiver corps, with sophomores Ricky Slade, Journey Brown and C.J. Holmes battling true freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford for carries. Slade's 45 rushing attempts last year make him the team’s most experienced runner. The speedy Brown has bulked up to 206 pounds and excelled in the spring.
The offensive line has three returning starters but will likely feature a redshirt freshman at left tackle, as Rasheed Walker appears poised to succeed Ryan Bates, an early draft entrant.
Previewing Penn State's Defense for 2019
Coordinator Brent Pry likes to bring the heat, and he appears to have the personnel to do so again after a 2018 season in which Penn State led the FBS in sacks (3.6 per game) and was fourth in tackles for a loss (8.2 per game). Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos finished with eight sacks and 20 TFLs last year and could be a dominant force. Robert Windsor was a disruptive defensive tackle, totaling 7.5 sacks. The Lions have holes to fill at the other two spots, but they’ve recruited well at defensive end in recent years, and it won’t be surprising if redshirt freshman Jayson Oweh pushes for early playing time.
At linebacker, Micah Parsons appears primed for a big year. The former five-star prospect led the team in tackles with 83 last season despite starting only one game. He’s set to jump to the top of the depth chart this year, where he'll join experienced seniors Cam Brown and Jan Johnson to form a solid starting threesome.
The Lions return two veterans in the secondary, with cornerback John Reid and strong safety Garrett Taylor both back. Penn State finished eighth in the country in pass efficiency defense last year. With Tariq Castro-Fields set to join the starting lineup at cornerback, Jonathan Sutherland and Lamont Wade battling for the vacant safety spot opposite Taylor, and a whole lot of pocket-crushing defensive ends set to return, the Lions should be effective against the pass again.
Previewing Penn State's Specialists for 2019
After a season marred by special teams gaffes, the Lions have a new coordinator: Joe Lorig, formerly of Memphis. He inherits an excellent punter in senior Blake Gillikin, whose career average (43.3) is the best in school history. The Lions also return placekicker Jake Pinegar, who hit 16-of-24 field goal attempts as a freshman. In addition, Hamler is a dangerous kick returner who averaged 26.2 yards last season.
Penn State's recent success has been predicated on offense, but this team may have to lean on its defense while waiting for the young playmakers on the other side of the ball to gain experience. The good news for Franklin is that his defense might just be up to the challenge, with difference-makers such as Gross-Matos and Parsons leading the way. The bad news is that Penn State still plays in the rugged Big Ten East Division, where its abundant youth on offense is not likely to go unexploited. The Lions are building something after bringing in three consecutive recruiting classes that have ranked among the country's top dozen. But this project may not be complete in 2019.