STATE COLLEGE – Penn State coach James Franklin enters his sixth year in Happy Valley with a youthful but talented roster. The Nittany Lions have signed some of the Big Ten’s best prospects in Noah Cain, C.J. Thorpe and Caedan Wallace, who should help keep them in the thick of the conference hunt this season.
The Nittany Lions debuted at No. 15 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 Poll and landed at No. 14 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
Penn State went 9-4 overall, 6-3 in Big Ten play last season and ended the year with a three-point loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. Fourteen starters return, but Penn State will noticeably display a new look on offense for its Aug. 31 season opener against Idaho.
Gone are school record-setting quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.
“The positives are you’ve got a bunch of guys that are hungry and are excited and that have something to really prove and got a chip on their shoulder,” Franklin said at media day in early August. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
“Obviously, the negatives, are you lack experience, and experience counts and experience matters. There’s no doubt about it.
“Experience playing major college football, experience playing in Beaver Stadium, experience playing in all these different venues that we are going to go to on the road, that is a factor. ... But that’s our job.
“Our job is to help these guys gain as much experience and as much confidence as we possibly can, and also create depth.”
As Penn State entered its final week before the opener, Franklin still hadn’t named his starting quarterback.
Redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and redshirt freshman Will Levis were entrenched in the battle. Clifford is the only quarterback on Penn State’s roster to have attempted a pass in college, and he’s viewed as the likely starter.
“The good thing is both of them are approaching it the right way,” Franklin said. “They are both approaching it as if they are the starter and they are both approaching it from a leadership perspective and both are very talented. We are excited about that.”
The Nittany Lions will have to navigate a schedule that features eight teams that earned bowl berths last season if they’re to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
Penn State has rattled off 31 wins over the past three seasons. Another nine-win season isn’t outside the realm of possibility, but the Nittany Lions will have to rely early on their gifted defense while the offense gains experience.
Five starters return from a unit that finished last season ranked No. 45 in the FBS in total offense (423 yards per game).
Clifford completed five of his seven passes for two touchdowns and 195 yards in limited action last season behind McSorley. Should he win the position battle, he’ll have talented receiving outlets in sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth and redshirt sophomore wide receiver K.J. Hamler, who will ease his transition in the starting role.
Freiermuth’s eight touchdowns last year ranked second among FBS tight ends. He finished the season with 368 yards receiving on 26 receptions.
Hamler posted a team-leading 754 yards receiving to go with five touchdowns. He averaged 18 yards per catch. Freiermuth and Hamler should again be among conference leaders at their respective positions.
Fifth-year senior tight end Nick Bowers gives Penn State depth and versatility. Bowers has endured multiple injuries throughout his Penn State career, but is now finally healthy and expected to complement Freiermuth.
Penn State added a new wide receivers coach in Gerad Parker in the offseason to replace David Corley. Parker will be tasked with fixing the 2018 unit’s struggles with drops. In addition to Hamler, the wide receivers include Jahan Dotson (13 catches for 203 yards), Justin Shorter (one catch for nine yards) and Mac Hippenhammer (six catches for 103 yards and one touchdown).
Penn State’s running back room is stocked with talent.
Sophomore Ricky Slade is the most experienced of the group, having recorded 257 yards and six touchdowns on 45 carries in 2018. Redshirt sophomore Journey Brown played in nine games last year and finished with 44 yards and one touchdown on eight carries. One of Penn State’s fastest players, Brown has added considerable size in the offseason, bulking up from 194 pounds his freshman year to 206 pounds.
The Nittany Lions signed blue-chip players Cain (IMG Academy, Fla.) and Devyn Ford (North Stafford High, Va.).
Both have received praise from Franklin for their efforts during fall camp and are in line for carries this year.
Senior Steven Gonzales (left tackle), redshirt junior Michal Menet (center) and redshirt junior Will Fries (right/left tackle) will anchor the offensive line. Redshirt freshman left tackle Rasheed Walker played in four games last year and will replace Robert Bates, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles before being traded to the Buffalo Bills. Redshirt sophomore Des Holmes (tackle), Caedan Wallace (guard) and redshirt sophomore C.J. Thorpe (guard) have all received praise from Franklin during fall camp.
Fourth-year defensive coordinator Brent Pry returns six starters from a unit that led the FBS in sacks per game last year with 3.62.
Several Nittany Lion defenders have garnered preseason accolades. Junior defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, senior linebacker Cam Brown, senior defensive tackle Robert Windsor and sophomore linebacker Micah Parson have each landed on award watch lists.
Gross-Matos, a Big Ten preseason honoree, will lead Penn State’s defensive front. He accumulated 54 tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery last season. Parsons and Brown bolster the Nittany Lions’ linebacker corps. Parsons logged just one start last season but still managed to lead the team with 83 total tackles. He should thrive as a first-time starter. Brown posted a team-leading three forced fumbles in 2018 and ended the season with 63 total tackles.
Seniors Garrett Taylor and John Reid give Penn State’s secondary veteran leadership. Taylor brings a season’s worth of starting experience to the safety position. He had three interceptions last year.
Reid missed all of 2017 with an injury but returned to corner last year to start 11 games and record two interceptions. Based on his numbers from last season, Reid could emerge as one of the Big Ten’s best at the position, should he remain healthy.
Of Reid, Franklin said: “Not only did he look as good as he did pre-injury but better from an experience, from a maturity, from an understanding of our defense and our culture.”
Former safety Nick Scott’s departure to the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams opens the door for either Lamont Wade or Jaquan Brisker, both juniors.
Wade played in 13 games last year and has appeared in 25 contests during his Penn State career. He tallied 31 tackles and forced a fumble last season.
Brisker comes to Happy Valley via Lackawanna Community College and has earned praise from Franklin for his performances during fall camp. Wade or Brisker will fit in nicely with Taylor.
Junior Tariq Castro-Fields made just three starts at cornerback last year but tied for a team’s second-best seven pass breakups. Opposing quarterbacks will be challenged by having to throw against Castro-Fields and Reid at the corners.
Special teams coordinator Joe Lorig was brought in from Memphis during the offseason to replace Phil Galiano, who went to the New Orleans Saints.
The Nittany Lions added redshirt sophomore kicker Jordan Stout, a Virginia Tech transfer. Stout walked on at Virginia Tech and is immediately available since he wasn’t on scholarship last season. Stout ended 2018 with an FBS fourth-best touchback percentage (84) as 61 of his 71 kickoffs were not returned.
Stout is expected to compete with sophomore kicker Jake Pinegar at the position. Pinegar connected on 16 of his 24 field goal attempts last season and kicked a career-long of 49 yards. During Penn State’s Media Day event in August, Lorig said Stout’s addition has raised the level of competition among Nittany Lion specialists. Penn State last year struggled in the kicking game and ended the season ranked 12th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (66.7). Lorig’s presence should yield positive results this year.
Senior punter Blake Gillikin headlines Penn State’s special teams unit. Gillikin is Penn State’s all-time leader in punting average (43.3 yards per), and he’s the school’s only punter to kick more than three punts 70 yards in a season.
Hamler added a boost to the return game and is expected to again produce similar results.
He returned 13 kicks for 523 yards last year, sixth all-time at Penn State. He also added 14 punt returns for 96 yards in 2018.
Franklin has accumulated 45 wins in five years at Penn State.
In his past three seasons, the Nittany Lions haven’t finished lower than third in the Big Ten East, and he’s just three seasons removed from winning the Big Ten title. Franklin was named to the Dodd Trophy watch list earlier this summer.
Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne enters his second year in the position. His mettle will be tested as he’ll do so without McSorley. Rahne’s been with Franklin since the two were at Kansas State in 2006, and he’s earned the trust of his friend and head coach. Rahne said he’s working this offseason on acclimating himself with the position and looked at other programs and spoken with other coaches to do so.
Pry will work with perhaps his most talented defense in his four years as coordinator. Penn State’s defense has been formidable during Pry’s tenure, and key pieces such as Gross-Matos, Parsons and Reid should bode well for sustained success.
Six other coaches round out Penn State’s staff: Tim Banks (co-defensive coordinator/safeties); Tyler Bowen (offensive recruiting coordinator/tight ends); Matt Limegrover (run game coordinator/offensive line); Ja’Juan Seider (running backs); Terry M. Smith (assistant head coach/defensive recruiting coordinator/cornerbacks); Sean Spencer (associated head coach/ run game coordinator/ defensive line).
The Nittany Lions will have three non-conference games before entering Big Ten play.
Idaho (Aug. 31), Buffalo (Sept. 7), and Pittsburgh (Sept. 14) travel to Beaver early in the season.
Penn State’s schedule this year features seven home games and five road contests. The Nittany Lions have idle weeks on Sept. 21 and Nov. 2.
Penn State has games against four teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25: No. 5 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan, No. 18 Michigan State and No. 20 Iowa.
Penn State’s game against Pittsburgh is the 100th of the series, and it’s the last scheduled contest between the in-state rivals.
Michigan travels to Beaver Stadium as the Nittany Lions’ whiteout opponent.
Away games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State will prove daunting, but the conference draw isn’t insurmountable.
College football expert Phil Steele pegged Penn State as having the 42nd-ranked strength of schedule in the nation.