Penn State is looking to rebound. The Nittany Lions have gone 11–11 over the past two seasons, and they did not head into the 2022 offseason with the wind at their backs, having dropped six of their last eight games last year, including a 24–10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.
“We’ve got some things to work on,” head coach James Franklin conceded following the loss to the Razorbacks. “We’ll get it fixed.”
Franklin’s to-do list starts with the rushing attack, a surprising liability last season and one that will almost certainly require major contributions from freshmen and sophomores if PSU is to bounce back from its worst two-year performance since going 7–16 in 2003 and ’04.
Previewing Penn State’s Offense for 2022
Penn State has one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country in super senior Sean Clifford. He’s had his share of highs and lows, and his most recent performance — a two-interception, 14-of-32 showing in the Outback Bowl — definitely falls into the latter category. But he’s started 33 games over the past three seasons and is one of only three players in school history with more than 8,000 yards of total offense. The other three scholarship quarterbacks all have freshman eligibility, so it’s unlikely that anyone will dislodge the incumbent ahead of Penn State’s Sept. 1 opener at Purdue.
Of more concern is the ground game. Despite boasting a trio of former four-star running backs in their backfield, the Lions didn’t have a single 100-yard rushing performance in any game last year. Keyvone Lee led the team in rushing as a sophomore with 530 yards — only 57 more than he gained in 2020 despite playing in three more games. Lee and the other returning runners will be pushed in preseason practice by newcomers Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Singleton, who rushed for nearly 6,400 yards in high school, looks to be an early-impact freshman.
Of course, any improvement here will require a better performance from the offensive line. The Lions will be relying on some players with little game experience at PSU, notably guards Hunter Nourzad and Sal Wormley, guard/tackle Landon Tengwall and tackle Olumuyiwa Fashanu. Among them, those four players have started one game at Penn State, and at least three of them figure to be in the starting lineup this fall. If that unit can give Clifford some time, though, he’s got a couple of sure-handed receivers in Parker Washington and WKU transfer Mitchell Tinsley.
Previewing Penn State’s Defense for 2022
First-year Lions defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, formerly head coach at Miami (Fla.), has some holes in his front seven, with a starter needing to be replaced on the line and two others in the linebacker corps. But the Lions are also getting back a couple of key players who suffered season-ending injuries a year ago: defensive tackle PJ Mustipher and defensive end Adisa Isaac. The 6'4", 329-pound Mustipher is an outstanding run-stuffer who was badly missed after after a season-ending left knee injury at Iowa last October. Isaac was a rising star before suffering an offseason injury that forced him to sit out the entire 2021 campaign.
The Lions will need someone to step up at defensive end, as Arnold Ebiketie is off to the NFL after ranking third in the Big Ten with 9.5 sacks last year. Isaac, who had 1.5 sacks and two QB hurries in limited duty as a sophomore, fits the bill, and he’ll be joined this summer by five-star freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton and Maryland transfer Demeioun Robinson.
At linebacker, Curtis Jacobs is the only returning starter. He ranked sixth on the team with 61 tackles last year. There isn’t much experience at the middle linebacker spot, where Tyler Elsdon and Kobe King are competing. And the Lions have raided their secondary to bolster the outside linebacker position opposite Jacobs, moving super senior safety Jonathan Sutherland to that spot.
Even with Sutherland moving, the secondary should be in good hands with cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and field safety Ji’Ayir Brown back. A year ago, Brown tied for the FBS lead with six interceptions. Two members of Penn State’s 2021 recruiting class — cornerback Kalen King and safety Jaylen Reed — are in line to start after combining to play in 21 games and forgoing redshirts last year.
Previewing Penn State’s Specialists for 2022
With all-purpose specialist Jordan Stout graduating, the Lions need a kicker and a punter. They return senior kicker Jake Pinegar, who hit 20-of-25 field-goal attempts in 2019 and 2020 before giving way to Stout last year. But the punting job probably won’t be decided until preseason camp, when scholarship freshman Alex Bacchetta will be on hand. The Lions will also miss Jahan Dotson, who handled all but three of Penn State’s 25 punt returns the past two seasons. Washington figures to be a contender for those duties.
If they’re going to break out of the rut they’ve been in, the Nittany Lions will need to be stronger at the line of scrimmage. There are only so many workarounds available to an offense that can’t generate yards on the ground, and when you ask a mercurial quarterback to play hero ball every week, you tend to get what Penn State has gotten the past two years: a .500 record. The infusion of new talent on the line and the backfield should help. Indeed, the Lions are counting on it. The question is whether those players will mature quickly enough to lead Penn State back to Big Ten title contention in 2022.
National Ranking: 25
Podcast: Top 25 Megacast! Complete Top 25 Breakdown, Rankings and Predictions Explained