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Penn State Football: 2021 Nittany Lions Season Preview and Prediction

Tariq Castro-Fields, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Tariq Castro-Fields, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

For a guy who is coming off his first losing season at Penn State, James Franklin sounds pretty upbeat these days. Maybe that’s because the Nittany Lions were better at the end of the 2020 season than they were at the beginning, winning their last four after starting 0–5. Maybe it’s because he pulled off a recruiting coup in January when he fired offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and brought aboard Mike Yurcich following a coaching purge at Texas. Maybe it’s because the run of spectacularly bad luck that contributed to Penn State’s 0–5 start — injuries, turnovers and a crucial opt-out — seems unlikely to recur in 2021.

Whatever the reason, Franklin has turned the page. “There were tremendous lessons to be learned,” he says. “I look forward to taking … all those experiences and holistically getting better and using them to take the next step here at Penn State.” 

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Penn State’s Offense for 2021 

The Nittany Lions finished second in the Big Ten in total offense last season, so it’s not as if Yurcich is starting from scratch. But there’s considerable room for improvement, since the Lions ranked only seventh in the league in yards per play. Then there were the turnovers. The Lions had 17 giveaways, 12th in the Big Ten, and Sean Clifford threw nine interceptions, tied for the most in the league. They can’t afford a reprise this fall. Unless they find a potential challenger in the transfer portal, their hopes of bouncing back will hinge on Clifford doing likewise. He compiled a 23-7 touchdown-interception ratio in leading Penn State to an 11–2 finish in 2019, so he’s shown he can get the job done.

Elsewhere, the Lions boast offensive playmakers. Wideouts Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington came up big last fall, combining to make 88 catches for 1,373 yards and 14 touchdowns. Penn State also got an extended look at young tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson after Pat Freiermuth was forced to cut short his third and final season due to a shoulder injury. At running back, Keyvone Lee, Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes are all returning, and Noah Cain is expected to be healthy after suffering a season-ending foot injury in last year’s opener. Cain was second on the team in rushing with 443 yards as a freshman in 2019, while Lee had a team-high 438 yards as a freshman last season. Up front, three starting offensive linemen are back.

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Previewing Penn State’s Defense for 2021 

The big questions on this side of the ball involve the front seven. The line returns only one starter — veteran defensive tackle PJ Mustipher — and the coaching staff had to hit the transfer portal to beef up its numbers, landing former Duke tackle Derrick Tangelo and former Temple end Arnold Ebiketie. The defensive end position is one of the team’s bigger concerns, with little proven depth behind projected starters Ebiketie and Adisa Isaac. The six scholarship players who are expected to battle for backup spots have yet to record a sack among them, and only two — Nick Tarburton and Smith Vilbert — have seen enough action to record a tackle.

There are also questions at linebacker. The Lions return all three starters, but this unit struggled in 2020. The coaches shook things up in the spring, with Jesse Luketa moving inside where he will most likely share the spot with returning starter Ellis Brooks. Luketa was second on the team in tackles last season with 59 but may be better suited for a spot in the middle — a spot he had been expected to fill last year before Micah Parsons opted out. His move allowed rising star Brandon Smith to slide over to the Will OLB spot, opening up the Sam position for Curtis Jacobs, who played in eight games as a true freshman.

The secondary should be a strength, with cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and boundary safety Jaquan Brisker both choosing to return rather than enter the draft. Castro-Fields is a veteran who has been very effective when healthy; last year, he received an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod despite playing in only three games. Brisker came on strong at the end of last season and finished the year ranked third on the team in tackles with 57 and first in pass breakups with six.

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists for 2021 

Persistent red zone struggles meant kickers Jake Pinegar and Jordan Stout were busy last year. Penn State’s 18 field-goal attempts were second most in the Big Ten. The Lions hit only 11. Their 61 percent success rate, third worst in the Big Ten, came on the heels of a 2019 season in which Pinegar and Stout made 13-of-15. Stout doubles as punter and was solid last year, averaging 41.6 yards. The other big name in the kicking game is Dotson, who had an 81-yard punt return for TD against Michigan State and a 50-yard return against Illinois.

Final Analysis 

The Lions would like to believe that the last month of the 2020 season, in which they won four in a row including a rare victory at Michigan, was more indicative of their potential in 2021 than their 0–5 start. Clifford threw five TD passes and only one interception in those four wins, showing that Penn State is a pretty good team when it doesn’t turn the ball over. Good enough to challenge Ohio State for Big Ten East supremacy this fall? That’s a big ask, but by changing offensive coordinators, Franklin has signaled that he’s willing to make a bold move in pursuit of the program’s playoff dreams.

National Ranking: 19

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