You wouldn’t know it from looking at the roster, which is full of high-profile returnees like Micah Parsons, Pat Freiermuth and Sean Clifford, but Penn State has undergone some big changes. There’s a new offensive coordinator and new assistants in charge of the offensive and defensive lines and wide receivers.
That’s a lot of upheaval for one offseason, but as head coach James Franklin notes, it’s a byproduct of his team’s 42–11 record over the past four years. “People have seen the success we’ve had,” he says, “and want to steal bits and pieces of it.”
Whether they stole enough to slow the Lions’ momentum is an open question. A veteran roster that returns eight starters on offense and five on defense should help smooth the transition.
Previewing Penn State's Offense for 2020
The Nittany Lions have a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca, formerly of Minnesota. Ciarrocca’s mandate at Penn State has been to blend his system with the one already in place, so don’t expect the Lions to deviate radically from an approach that yielded 35.8 points per game last year. They’ve got a capable dual-threat quarterback in Clifford, who averaged 254.7 yards of total offense, fourth best in the Big Ten. They’ve also got an excellent stable of running backs headlined by Journey Brown. As a sophomore, Brown surpassed 100 yards in four of Penn State’s last five games, including a 202-yard outburst in the Cotton Bowl vs. Memphis.
On the offensive line, new position coach Phil Trautwein has inherited five players with starting experience. Tackles Will Fries and Rasheed Walker are back, as is center Michal Menet. C.J. Thorpe and Mike Miranda shared the right guard position last year, and one of those two will likely move over to left guard to fill the Lions’ only graduation loss.
The big concern is at wide receiver. Aside from returning starter Jahan Dotson, who caught 40 passes for 691 yards in his first two seasons, the Lions don’t have a single wideout with more than a dozen career catches to his credit. Six of the team’s scholarship receivers will have freshman eligibility, and they’re not the only newcomers. There’s also a new position coach, Taylor Stubblefield, the team’s fourth receivers coach in as many seasons. One piece of good news: Freiermuth is back after catching 15 TD passes his first two seasons, tying the school record for tight ends.
Previewing Penn State's Defense for 2020
The Lions have lost veteran starters at all three levels, but they appear to have good options at the six vacancies. Up front, where former South Carolina defensive line coach John Scott Jr. has taken over, Penn State returns Shaka Toney at weakside defensive end and has two solid contenders for the strongside spot in Jayson Oweh and Adisa Isaac. Antonio Shelton is back at defensive tackle, while experienced junior PJ Mustipher is set to take over the opposite spot.
The linebacker corps has lost two starters, but it returns a game-wrecker in Parsons. As a sophomore, Parsons led the Lions in tackles from his weakside spot, making 109 stops and winning All-America honors. He had a spectacular afternoon in the Cotton Bowl with 14 tackles and two forced fumbles, setting the stage for what could be a huge junior year. At middle linebacker, Ellis Brooks has seen extensive action the past two seasons, while Brandon Smith was the most highly rated prospect in the team’s 2019 recruiting class and looks ready to step in at the strongside LB spot.
The secondary welcomes back cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and free safety Lamont Wade. Both are seniors who considered leaving early for the draft. Elsewhere, Marquis Wilson will vie for the open cornerback spot after coming on strong toward the end of his true freshman season. Classmate Keaton Ellis could also be a factor, while junior Jonathan Sutherland appears likely to take over at strong safety. The Lions need dramatic improvement in the secondary after allowing 251.5 passing yards per game last season, the Big Ten’s second-highest total.
Previewing Penn State's Specialists for 2020
Jake Pinegar and Jordan Stout are both back after combining to give Penn State one of the Big Ten’s better kicking games in 2019. Pinegar was the Lions’ primary field-goal kicker, while Stout handled kickoffs and long-distance field goals. Together, they hit 13-of-15 attempts. Stout might also be the Lions’ punter this fall. Two other key vacancies — the punt- and kickoff-return jobs — have a cloudier outlook. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a freshman or two make an impact here.
If the Lions are going to take the next step, they will need to do better in the passing game — on both sides of the ball. They will need to throw and catch more consistently after finishing eighth in the Big Ten in passing offense last year, and they will need to stop opponents from gouging their secondary, as happened in their loss to Minnesota and even in a few wins.
Several young cornerbacks flashed potential last season, notably Wilson and Ellis, so the future looks bright in the secondary. But the situation on offense remains murky. Except for Dotson, the receiver position is a mystery. Are any of the freshmen ready to become reliable contributors? If so, a division title may be attainable.