Penn State

Beat writer Donnie Collins keeps you posted with in-depth analysis and commentary

Finally, Lions break ’21 recruiting drought

Finally, Lions break ’21 recruiting drought

For the first time in more than three months, Penn State has added to its Class of 2021 commitment list.

Khalil Dinkins, a three-star athlete from the Pittsburgh area, verbally committed to the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

Dinkins is listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, and both Rivals.com and 247sports list him as a three-star prospect. He stars in the WPIAL at tight end and linebacker, but he told Blue-White Illustrated he was recruited as a tight end.

Rivals ranks Dinkins as the No. 23 overall player in Pennsylvania in the 2021 class.

It has been a while since Penn State landed a prospect in the upcoming class, and he’s actually the first in-state prospect to commit to the program since Lonnie White Jr. did in May. But, we’ll see if this — coupled with Penn State’s return to the filed on Saturday, spurs any kind of momentum

The Penn State running backs: In new offense, new responsibilities may await

The Penn State running backs: In new offense, new responsibilities may await

Over the next several days leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Saturday, we’ll study the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the running backs.

Noah Cain flexing his muscles

Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) celebrates a touchdown against Purdue during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Make no mistake about it, Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense at Minnesota last season set records and drew national attention because of what it accomplished in the passing game.

Also make no mistake, the NFL has taken notice of the receivers and offensive linemen who have starred in Ciarrocca’s systems in the past: Kenny Britt and Mohammed Sanu were receivers at Rutgers when he was leading that offense; Corey Davis (Western Michigan) and Tyler Johnson (Minnesota) were receiving stars under Ciarrocca, too. Taylor Morton and Chuks Okorafor were also blindside protectors at Western Michigan who wound up being drafted in the first three rounds by the Panthers and Steelers.

Still, Ciarrocca’s offenses over the years have been fairly balanced and reliant on versatile running backs.

In his last season at Western Michigan before leaving for Minnesota with head coach PJ Fleck, the Broncos had two running backs — Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan — combined for more than 2,600 yards from scrimmage. Two straight years, the Broncos averaged better than 200 yards per game on the ground and more than 5 yards per carry.

At Minnesota, he managed splitting carries between three experienced backs — Mohamed Ibrahim, Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith — who each averaged better than 5 yards per carry in 2019 and who, at times, were vital parts of the passing game, as well.

Penn State’s running backs are certainly better blue-chip talents than what Ciarrocca and Fleck had to work with at Western Michigan, and the Nittany Lions have always recruited dual-threat backs better than Minnesota, where the offense was much more run heavy in the years leading up to Ciarrocca’s arrival there.

Perhaps for the first time, backs like Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes present Ciarrocca with an opportunity to be as balanced as possible at the position.

“A lot of the running backs that we have are not a traditional running back that just pound it down, just get the ball and run,” Brown said. “But I really feel like coach Ciarrocca, how he splits us out and lets us run routes and stuff… that’s going to open up and have us be against linebackers or whatever. I think we’re going to be very versatile this yea, and be able to take our running back group to the next level with that receiver stuff.”

That “receiver stuff” might be a key difference for a Nittany Lions backfield that combined for just 39 receptions last season, when they weren’t lined up as a receivers by previous offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne.

But Ciarrocca contends, the backs’ primary strength can be found in its talent and numbers, which will be needed during a grueling nine-game, nine-week schedule.

“I’m just excited to have this many good backs because I know that the Big Ten is tough and you’re going to get beat up at that position,” Ciarrocca said. “I think it’s unusual for a Big Ten running back, a featured guy who’s carrying the ball 20 times a game, to make it through a whole season and not be nicked up. To know we have three really, really talented backs – besides our true freshmen that are in the program – that are proven in Big Ten play, that makes me sleep a little bit better at night.”

The depth

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Journey Brown

Noah Cain

Joseph Bruno

Devyn Ford

Caziah Holmes

Keyvone Lee

Tank Smith

Newcomer to watch

Caziah Holmes

RB Caziah Holmes

Caziah Holmes might have been the fastest prep running back in the nation last season, and he has evidently displayed that speed repeatedly in camp. It’s clear he’s going to have some role on the 2020 team, and a bright future afterward.

Question is, how much will he actually be able to play in a season when Penn State has three extremely talented running backs — Journey Brown, Noah Cain and sophomore Devyn Ford — ahead of him on the depth chart? Last season, Penn State rotated Brown, Cain, Ford and since-transferred Ricky Slade with somewhat mixed results early on; the running game took off once Brown and Cain forced a more exclusive time share in November.

Finding a defined role for Holmes in the running game might benefit Penn State, as his speed will be difficult to handle. Finding a defined role for him, though, will also be on the challenging side.

Numbers game

8Noah Cain rushed for a freshman record 8 touchdowns last season, and he broke the previous record held by Curt Warner and Saquon Barkley in just 10 games. He also became the first Nittany Lions rookie to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games (vs. Purdue and at Iowa) since Barkley did it in 2015.

 

Player who needs to shine…

Devyn Ford

RB Devyn Ford

For his own good, Devyn Ford needs to find a road to a significant role.

The sophomore did some impressive things last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, picking up an 81-yard touchdown run and becoming the first freshman in four decades to gain 100 yards in a season opener. But he’s both firmly behind Brown and Cain on the depth chart, trying to fend off a stiff challenge from Holmes and coming off an arrest for a minor drug offense in August.

Conceivably, there’s a good opportunity for three backs to get significant-enough reps in this offense, but four might be stretching that a bit. A good start for Ford will put him firmly in that top three, and make Penn State’s running game an even more potent one for sure.

 

The Penn State linebackers: A position of strength, even after losses

The Penn State linebackers: A position of strength, even after losses

Over the next several days leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Saturday, we’ll study the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the linebackers.

James Franklin had a spare scholarship to give and walk-on long snapper Chris Stoll standing in his office. It’s a moment major college football coaches tend to savor, an opportunity to offer a life-changing reward to a valuable contributor. It’s as happy a time as these guys have without winning a football game.

As he’s delivering the good news to Stoll, Franklin happened to notice another somewhat more famous player waiting to speak to him. Two months earlier, Micah Parsons decided to forego his junior season with the Nittany Lions to focus on training for the 2021 NFL Draft. It was a big decision then and still is now for Penn State; he is considered a likely top-10 pick next spring, and without him, Penn State loses arguably the best defensive player in the nation. That’s why Franklin and his staff spent the last few months, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to convince him to opt back in.

And it’s why, as Franklin gave Stoll the scholarship Parsons vacated, part of him wondered if he should hold off a bit.

“I’m like, ‘Does he have second thoughts?’” Franklin said of Parsons, with a smile.

That’s how good Micah Parsons is, and Penn State would take him back with a second’s notice. That said, Franklin hasn’t exactly been shy about asserting another fact: The Nittany Lions linebackers should still be strong without its freakish leader.

And, as it is, without the other two veterans — Jan Johnson and Cam Brown — who started alongside him last season.

That, Franklin says, is how good Penn State’s linebackers are. A “position of strength,” he calls it. One capable of maybe not fully replacing a player with Parsons’ natural ability, but one that can make a run at being among the best groups in the country.

Parsons’ spot in the starting lineup, in fact, will go to a fellow five-star recruit, 6-3, 244-pound dynamo Brandon Smith, who already has a reputation for blazing speed and an ability to deliver the big hit.

“At the beginning of last year, I wasn’t as knowledgeable about the playbook as I am now,” Smith said. “Just being out on the field and continuing to get a bunch of reps and taking my time talking to the coaches and working on my fundamentals and film study, I feel more confident in my game and being able to help the team any way that I can.”

Ellis Brooks, a four-star recruit, will step into the middle linebacker spot former walk-on Jan Johnson held the last two seasons, and promising Jesse Luketa — who played plenty on coverage downs the last few seasons — will take over for Brown.

That leaves Penn State with two other five-star recruits — redshirt freshman Lance Dixon and true freshman Curtis Jacobs — and a slew of coveted youngsters like Charlie Katshir, Zuriah Fisher and Tyler Esldon, coming off the bench.

The game experience isn’t what it would have been had Parsons stayed, nor perhaps is the propensity for quite as many dynamic plays from the position. But this is also a group looking to make a name for itself without Parsons, one that thinks it is perfectly capable of continuing the Linebacker U tradition.

“We see the rich history of linebackers that have come here and then left their mark; guys from like Paul Posluszny to Sean Lee to NaVorro (Bowman) to…the list goes on and on,” Luketa said. “The standard is the standard, so that when I’m watching my film, and I’m able to pull up those old clips of Mike Hull and all those guys, seeing how they played, the style of football, the swagger, just how aggressive they play…that’s what we want to compete for. So when your number is called and your opportunity is finally here, that’s the level that we need to be playing at.”

The depth

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Ellis Brooks

Charlie Katshir

Lance Dixon

Max Chizmar

Brandon Smith

Robbie Dwyer

Jesse Luketa

Tyler Elsdon

Zuriah Fisher

Alex Furmanek

Curtis Jacobs

Newcomer to watch

Curtis Jacobs

LB Curtis Jacobs

There will actually be plenty at the linebacker position this fall, but easily the most interesting one will be Curtis Jacobs.

The only question right now is, will he be ready to compete for playing time? We’ll find that out soon enough, of course, because there really is no other impediment to Jacobs getting playing time outside of his preparedness to actually be on the field. Given Penn State’s depth, Jacobs might ordinarily have been a candidate to play four games and maintain his redshirt season. But, due to the pandemic, all athletes this fall have been given a waiver on eligibility by the NCAA. In other words, nothing that happens this fall affects a player’s eligibility clock.

If there’s one knock on Penn State’s linebacking corps, its depth at the Mike. Jacobs and Lance Dixon could be candidates to fill in there if the need arises. The best players are going to play this fall, regardless of experience level. It may take some time to determine who those players are, but those freshmen certainly will put themselves in the running.

Numbers game

6The highest tackle total any current Penn State linebacker has ever registered in a game is the 6 which Ellis Brooks amassed last September at Maryland. Micah Parsons had six or more tackles 17 times in two seasons with the Nittany Lions.

 

Player who needs to shine…

Jesse Luketa headshot

LB Jesse Luketa

This is really the “if he doesn’t play well, it’s not going to work” category, and Jesse Luketa certainly fits that bill.

There’s no questioning his athletic ability, and he sure has had a few moments in the blue and white: His five-tackle performance against Maryland after Parsons was ejected last September stands out. But after that game, he didn’t come close to matching that performance. In fact, he had more than one tackle in just two of Penn State’s next nine games.

He needs to be the same factor he was against Maryland on a much more consistent bases in 2020. That should come with more playing time, of course. But if it doesn’t, Penn State will be looking to add production from that spot fairly early in the process. For now, though, Penn State needs to think his leadership and experience will lead to big-time production.

The Penn State special teams: Many happy returns due in 2020?

The Penn State special teams: Many happy returns due in 2020?

Over the next week leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Oct. 24, we’ll take a look at the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the special teams.

Jahan Dotson running

Jahan Dotson looks for an opening during a game at Iowa last season. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

When Joe Lorig gets a knock at his office door these days, there’s a good chance it’s someone politicking for a job.

That’s especially so in 2020, when there are two pretty prime opportunities ripe for the picking on Penn State’s return teams.

With the dynamic KJ Hamler off to the Denver Broncos, the Nittany Lions’ second-year special teams coordinator figured he’d have many more eager volunteers to fill Hamler’s role as kickoff- and punt returner this season than he does experienced volunteers. And, that might be the case. But while he knows the next Hamler might not be knocking, Lorig is no less content with the players from which he’ll ultimately choose.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys that I’m really excited about,” Lorig said.

They aren’t names necessarily associated with the return game, mind you. At least, not at the college level.

But both of the Nittany Lions’ starting safeties — Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker — asked to be considered on punt returns, and Lorig said Wade has looked “special” and Brisker “effective” in practice. Crafty freshman receiver Parker Washington was also mentioned to be in the hunt.

Still, the player Lorig admits he’s most confident in at punt returner might be the most experienced of the group: Receiver Jahan Dotson, who had a 30-yard return last season against Maryland.

Lorig said he is focused on the running back corps for help replacing Hamler on kick returns. Starter Journey Brown might get the first look, but Lorig will certainly be tempted by the power of Noah Cain and the speed of sophomore Devyn Ford and true freshman Caziah Holmes.

Perhaps none add Hamler’s natural combination of speed and elusiveness to the return game, but Lorig boldly predicted this group might be able to make more of an impact in the field position battle than Hamler was able to in 2019.

After all, teams game-planned against Hamler — Lorig, a former special teams coordinator at Memphis, insisted the Tigers were instructed to punt the ball away from Hamler at all costs in the Cotton Bowl — and the result often enough was a tradeoff opponents were willing to accept: A bad punt that gave Penn State better field position, but which didn’t give Hamler a chance to take the ball to the house.

“People just didn’t kick and punt to us, and when they did, the punters were oftentimes scared,” Lorig said. “KJ is phenomenal, but I actually expect better production out of those units (this season), because I think people won’t know as much about our guys. So at least early on, until we prove we are what I think we can be, I think people will will kick and punt to us without as much fear. That may open up some more possibilities for better play in the return game.”

The depth

SPECIALISTS

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Bradley King (P)

Rafael Checa (K)

Anthony DaSilva (K)

Carson Landis (P/K)

Vlad Hilling (K)

Levi Forrest (P)

Jake Pinegar (K)

Michael Wright (LS)

Chris Stoll (LS)

Jordan Stout (P/K)

 

Newcomer to watch

Caziah Holmes

RB Caziah Holmes

Simply going off what Lorig said during his press conference at Penn State’s virtual media days, it’s going to be difficult to pick a true newcomer that certainly will compete on special teams. He’s taking a measured approach to plugging holes on his coverage and return units this year due to the pandemic and lack of practice time that came along with it for most of the year, clearly advocating for players who have been through the process before.

But, if there is one, the safe money is probably on Caziah Holmes.

A true freshman running back from Florida, Holmes was a fairly dynamic return man in high school, as you’d expect given his blinding speed. And when it comes to finding kickoff return men, special teams coordinators do tend to fixate on running backs at the outset.

While the talk is going to center on Journey Brown getting that job, it’s fair to wonder whether it would be better to limit the wear and tear on a star running back’s body in a year when nothing has been quite normal training-wise. If there’s any concern at all with Brown in that role, Holmes would certain be a player to watch as a replacement.

Numbers game

3Penn State had just three returns of more than 30 yards last season. KJ Hamler had five in 2018 alone, and that season, the Nittany Lions had eight such returns on special teams.

 

Player who needs to shine…

Jordan Stout

P/K Jordan Stout

There are, frankly, a lot of assumptions being made that Jordan Stout will be a fine punter.

Maybe they’re good assumptions, considering we’ve seen how strong a leg he has courtesy of his work on kickoffs and long field goals last season. And hey, he did average 47 yards per punt in high school. But compared strictly to Blake Gillikin, who probably goes down as a top-10 punter in Penn State history at worst after his run as a four-year starter, Stout-the-punter is a relative unknown.

Last season, Penn State’s coverage units were among the best in the nation in their first season under Lorig, and they could be again this year. But Gillikin played a huge role in that, and Stout will have to show he’s more than just a powerful leg once he has the job full time, because the finer points that Gillikin mastered do matter.

The Penn State tight ends: They aren’t just catching passes

The Penn State tight ends: They aren’t just catching passes

Over the next week leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Oct. 24, we’ll take a look at the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the tight ends.

Penn State tight end catches a pass

ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth catches a touchdown pass.

Two tight ends on the field at one time. A more pronounced role as in-line blockers. A formula that worked for Penn State in 2019.

As head coach James Franklin put it, the Nittany Lions essentially were able to use — gasp — a fullback. It was a completely different but wildly effective look that, this fall, won’t be a surprise around the Big Ten…if Penn State decides to use it.

New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has new plans and different philosophies, of course. (He used a tight end-sized wideout — 6-foot-4, 240-pound Seth Green — as a short-yardage quarterback — last season. So using the position as creatively as Ricky Rahne did shouldn’t be an issue.) But the fact remains, Penn State rushed for 1,117 yards, averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns — three more than it did against FBS opponents in the season’s first two months — from November on.

Starter Pat Freiermuth and last year’s top backup, Nick Bowers, getting used to their increased role as lead blockers were just settling in at that point, and they received plenty of credit for being a catalyst.

Whether that continues this season is up for debate, given Ciarrocca’s system has not been seen and few players understandably want to hand out too much information about what it might look like.

“I love the new offense, what coach Ciarrocca is doing,” backup Zack Kuntz said. “We kind of kept some pieces that we like, and that’s the cool part about getting new OCs is you learn some new things, you keep some things from before and you kind of integrate those things into your offense. I think what he’s doing is going to be great for the tight ends.”

Bottom line is, what has worked in the past will always be an option, and if that’s the case, there will be plenty of opportunities for a young, gifted group of tight ends to forge a role this season. Whether that be as a pass catcher or a blocker.

The depth

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Trevor Baker

Grayson Kline

Tommy Friberg

Pat Freiermuth

Zack Kuntz

Theo Johnson

Brenton Strange

Tyler Warren

 

Newcomer to watch

Brenton Strange

TE Brenton Strange

Theo Johnson was one of the prized gets in the 2020 recruiting class, and while there’s going to be a learning curve for the former Canadian high school wideout, it’s almost certain he’ll have some kind of a role this fall.

Brenton Strange showed that last season, after all.

The former West Virginia high school star caught a four-yard touchdown pass in his first career collegiate game, against Idaho. He got into just one other game, but he made impressive strides off the field and was one of strength coach Dwight Galt’s prized pupils in the offseason. He gained more than 40 pounds to help out in the run game and has become a more complete tight end ready to jump into the rotation.

“Brenton comes in every single day and works,” Freiermuth said. “I kind of took Brenton under my wing, just kind of the way he works and the way he goes about his business. I’m just really excited to see Brenton get going this year because he has been waiting his turn. Now he is primed for a big year, and I think that he’s going to come out balling.”

Numbers game

1Pat Freiermuth needs one more touchdown reception to become the all-time leader in scores among Nittany Lions tight ends. He enters the season with 15 in his career, tied with Mike Gesicki. He’s ninth on the program’s all-time touchdown receptions list.

 

Player who needs to shine…

Penn State was able to develop a powerful running game as 2019 went on because of the tight ends. Sure, there’s a little more that goes into it than that — the offensive line found a rhythm, the coordinator made it more of a feature, and not to mention, the running backs were pretty darn talented. But once Penn State started getting more out of the tight ends as blockers, that part of the offense went from fairly average to truly formidable.

Zack Kuntz

TE Zack Kuntz

The key there, as much as Freiermuth, was his backup, senior Nick Bowers. He stayed healthy and finally lived up to his high school hype in the passing game, but he was just as successful paving the way for the backs.

Penn State is lucky to be getting Freiermuth back, but it needs Zack Kuntz to step up and become a factor similar to what Bowers was last season in the running game.

A self-professed “glorified wide receiver” in high school, Kuntz said he has learned a lot from tight ends coach Tyler Bowen, a former college lineman, about the blocking game since coming to Penn State. He said he’s ready to show he can translate that work onto the field. And, he knows he better.

“I’m not a 220-pound high school kid anymore,” Kuntz said. “I have a little more weight, which is definitely going to help a lot; your confidence, your movements and your strength overall. Going into this season, I feel a lot more comfortable, the best I’ve ever felt from any other past year. You just want to improve year after year. Bowers did a great job of solidifying that role and being a great blocker and relying on him when we needed him. It’s my job to step into that role and get the job done for the team.”

The Penn State offensive line: Trautwein showing old vets new way

The Penn State offensive line: Trautwein showing old vets new way

Over the next week leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Oct. 24, we’ll take a look at the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the offensive line.

Rasheed Walker practicing

JOE HERMITT / THE PATRIOT-NEWS VIA AP Penn State offensive lineman Rasheed Walker, right, works during practice for the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 30, 2018 in Orlando, Fla.

Phil Trautwein asks players the same question, and he always gets the same obvious answer.

What action moves more weight in the gym: A bench press, or a squat? The answer, Trautwein is fast to point out, is always the squat. Which leads to another question: Why are too many offensive linemen more concerned about mauling defenders with their upper body strength than they are initiating contact through their lower halves?

In his first offseason as Penn State’s offensive line coach, Trautwein has changed things, both in how the Nittany Lions go about their jobs up front and in how they think about getting that job done.

And those changes, the Nittany Lions’ veteran line seems to agree, have led to perhaps the one big difference that can finally put it over the top after years of up-and-down play.

“I think just as a whole group, we’re playing so much more confident,” senior tackle Will Fries said. “We’re really trusting that he’s giving us the tools to be successful, and we’re really starting to go into practice every day and play for him. All these guys are getting better every single day, and it’s just really exciting thing.”

For sure, the Nittany Lions will admit they were confident under Matt Limegrover, as well. The veteran line boss had been in charge for four seasons, helping shape the line that pushed Saquan Barkley and the Lions to the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2016. But as successful as Limegrover was in some areas, the Nittany Lions didn’t develop as quickly in others.

While the Nittany Lions rushed for 2,800 yards and 34 touchdowns last season, quarterbacks were sacked 32 times, continuing an unsettling struggles to protect the offense’s most valuable assets.

At Boston College last season, Trautwein’s Eagles allowed just 11 sacks — the third-fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision — and the 57 tackles for loss their opponents mustered were the 13th fewest.

The metrics are on Trautwein’s side, but the fact of the matter is, he’s trying to get more out of a group of offensive linemen who have been at it for a while now. If he wants, Trautwein can start five players up front who started five games or more last season for Limegrover, and you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks.

But senior center Michal Menet says it’s not about gimmicks with Trautwein. It’s about philosophy and communication. It’s about technique and power. And while what Trautwein is teaching improved Boston College’s offensive line by leaps and bounds, it’s also about the same thing most offensive line coaches want.

It’s more about the packaging, and Trautwein has been able to tap into his youth, his NFL playing experience, the years he spent protecting Tim Tebow’s blindside on the way to national championships as a player at Florida, and his intensive study of legendary New England Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s methods to make himself one of the most respected young coaches in the game.

“When it comes down to it, playing on the o-line revolves around the same type of techniques,” Menet said. “Each coach has his own test to it. Playing off his experience and being around the best, Coach Traut knows what works and what doesn’t. Each coach has their own little spin on technique. Probably the biggest thing from him is fire off the ball, getting off the ball really quick in the run game and playing in your legs all the way around. Having a good base is his biggest key to the run and pass game.”

The depth

CENTERS AND GUARDS

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Michal Menet

Mike Miranda

Collin De Boef

Golden Israel-Achumba

CJ Thorpe

Bryce Effner

Nick Dawkins

Anthony Whigan

Caleb Konigus

Justin Kopko

Will Knutsson

Sal Wormley

Juice Scruggs

Blake Zalar

 

TACKLES

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Will Fries

Des Holmes

Rasheed Walker

Jimmy Christ

Olu Fashanu

George French

Ibrahim Traore

Caedan Wallace

 

Newcomer to watch

Caedan Wallace

OT Caedan Wallace

Barring a flurry of injuries along the O-line, Caedan Wallace is really the only player who qualifies as a newcomer that will likely see significant time this year.

Head coach James Franklin said Wallace’s emergence has at the very least tempted the coaching staff into determining whether it makes sense to move Will Fries from right tackle to right guard. It would be a drastic move for an offensive front so established, but Wallace has that much potential and could give the Nittany Lions a firm and young foundation at the tackle spots, if Wallace can team with sophomore Rasheed Walker.

“Caedan’s another guy that’s playing at a really high level right now,” Fries said. “He’s just a big kid and he’s using these techniques that Coach Traut’s given us, and he’s playing really well.”

Numbers game

Between them, the five suspected starters for Penn State along the offensive line — center Michal Menet, guards Mike Miranda and CJ Thorpe and guards Will Fries and Rasheed Walker — have started 85 career games.

 

Player who needs to shine…

Will Fries

OL Will Fries

This is one of those positions where Penn State is pretty sure it knows what it’s going to get. But it’s pretty clear the player who needs to develop into a much more consistent factor is Will Fries.

Fries has been a steady hand at right tackle — he has 33 of the 85 career starts mentioned above — but he has also looked vulnerable against some of the more athletic defensive ends in the Big Ten at points during his career. A move inside to guard might negate some of that, but if he stays at tackle, he’s going to have to develop into a more effective pass protector in order to give quarterback Sean Clifford the best chance he has to make plays downfield — and to stay healthy.

The Penn State defensive line: Leadership and talent hoping to overcome some inexperience

The Penn State defensive line: Leadership and talent hoping to overcome some inexperience

Over the next week leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Oct. 24, we’ll take a look at the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the defensive line.

Penn State's Shaka Toney celebrating

BARRY REEGER / ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney (18) celebrates after sacking Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer last season.

There might not be a position group at Penn State that underwent a more drastic change in the offseason than the defensive line.

No, that doesn’t have much to do with the losses of tackle Robert Windsor and end Yetur Gross-Matos to the NFL. And also no, it’s not a knock on the six returning players who saw significant action last season.

These are the Wild Dogs, and the leader of the pack is gone.

Charismatic defensive line coach Sean Spencer built this group from the ground up and had been a mainstay on head coach James Franklin’s staff since 2014 until he left to take over the New York Giants’ defensive front in January. A seasoned veteran line coach, John Scott Jr., familiar with defensive coordinator Brent Pry and his system replaced him. But, the fact remains, every member of the 2020 defensive line was recruited by Spencer.

“I tell everybody, we’re Wild Dogs for life,” defensive tackle Fred Hansard said. “So, I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I think coach Scott knows that. This is not disrespecting nobody; we just came in with Spence. So I just think that’s going to stay the way it is.”

Fair enough. But those Spencer left behind in Happy Valley know they also need to adhere to one of Scott’s top principles: “If you want to talk, make sure you walk.”

That means, those who developed as leaders under Spencer are going to have to make the transition easier for Scott. Luckily for him, the Nittany Lions have as much leadership along the front four as they do talent.

On a defense loaded with youngsters brimming with sheer athleticism, veteran end Shaka Toney might be the groups most effective leader. He and defensive tackle Antonio Shelton likely will be the only senior starters among the front seven, and both have commanded the respect of those younger players, like ends Jayson Oweh and Adisa Isaac.

This is a position that has tremendous talent and some big question marks. Can Oweh and Isaac replace Gross-Matos’ production? Is junior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher ready to take the next step as a full-time starter? Is there enough depth?

Those are questions the players will have to answer and for which Scott will, undoubtedly, answer. With a new boss in town came a new way of doing things, and that’s a tough transition for many players at the college level even when the coach being replaced wasn’t as universally popular as Spencer.

How quickly this group can make that transition will go a long way toward determining whether it can reach its lofty potential. Scott has done what he can, players say; now, it’s up to them to make it seamless.

“We joke around saying, ‘100 level, 200 level, 300-400 level,’ like classes; it’s always 400-level conversations with him, and it’s explained crystal clear,” Toney said. “He’ll spend 20 minutes on one play. I love the detail of him. He just makes sure that it’s going to be done right and that he has expectations.

“Some coaches try to come in and throw out everything that you know, your culture and all that, because they’re a new coach. He didn’t do that. He came in and integrated his own stuff, and we’ve been rolling ever since. He goes above and beyond for our room. He’s building chemistry every day.”

The depth

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Antonio Shelton

Fred Hansard

Judge Culpepper

Hakeem Beamon

PJ Mustipher

Aeneas Hawkins

Cole Brevard

Joseph Appiah-Darkwa

Dvon Ellies

Fatorma Mulbah

 

DEFENSIVE END

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Shane Simmons

Dan Vasey

Adisa Isaac

Coziah Izzard

Shaka Toney

Jayson Oweh

Bryce Mostella

Nick Tarburton

Amin Vanover

Smith Vilbert

Jake Wilson

 

Newcomer to watch

Hakeem Beamon

DT Hakeem Beamon

Bottom line is, there needs to be one player who has never seen significant playing time at the college level step up at both spots.

The odds-on favorite at defensive end looks like 6-foot-6 Smith Vilbert, who is looked at a bit as a poor man’s Oweh from outside the program, but who has impressed coaches enough to make himself a candidate for extra time in the rotation.

The player who seems to have impressed offensive linemen most, though, is freshman tackle Hakeem Beamon, a sort of no-frills prospect a year ago who constantly wound up impressing on the scout team. It would hardly be a shock if he wound up as the fifth tackle.

“I think one of the guys who — I don’t know if surprised is the best way to put it — has really started to show more recently that he’s a good player is Hakeem Beamon,” center Michal Menet said. “He’s been doing a lot of really good things at practice so far.”

Numbers game

7No player enters the season with more career sacks than DE Shaka Toney’s 15.5. But, seven of those came in just two of his 38 career games played. He tied the Penn State record with four sacks at Indiana in 2018, and had a three-sack game against Purdue last season.

 

Player who needs to shine…

Penn State DT PJ Mustipher

DT PJ Mustipher

Most everyone will pick Jayson Oweh here, and for good reason: If Oweh dominates, there will be no drop-off from losing Yetur Gross-Matos. So he’s as good a pick as anybody.

But, the Nittany Lions’ defense has always been at it best when it can rush the passer up the middle. Devon Still, Jordan Hill, DaQuan Jones, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are just some of the stars the position has developed in the last decade, and Robert Windsor carried on that tradition last season. Antonio Shelton is a tremendous run-stuffer who just isn’t that type of player as a pass rusher, which puts plenty of onus on PJ Mustipher to develop into one. He had just one sack last season, but Mustipher in 2020 will have to at least approach the 8 quarterback hurries Windsor accounted for in 2019.

The Penn State receivers: Learning to be themselves key to success

The Penn State receivers: Learning to be themselves key to success

Over the next week leading into Penn State’s season opener at Indiana on Oct. 24, we’ll take a look at the biggest storyline at each position. Today, we look at the receiving corps.

Jahan Dotson runs in the open field

Penn State’s Jahan Dotson runs away from Wisconsin’s Deron Harrell in State College on Nov. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)

Generally speaking, we’ll be talking about an experienced Penn State football team looking to open the season in less than two weeks. They return their starting quarterback, their top three running backs, a star tight end and six players along the offensive line who have started a game.

The Nittany Lions’ receiving corps doesn’t have the luxury of having been there and done that.

Junior Jahan Dotson is the only returning starter, and while he has been a steady contributor to the offense over his first two seasons, the players looking to help him form a crew that will at the very least not harm the offense’s chances of being championship caliber have not been as steady,

Sophomore Daniel George struggled with drops last season. Junior Cam Sullivan-Brown has had to fight through injuries. And as far as experience goes, that’s pretty much all these Nittany Lions will have.

“People look at us as, I guess you can say, the weaker link on the offense or the team as a whole,” Dotson said. “That just pushes guys every day to come out and try to be better and prove people wrong. It starts with proving yourself every day.”

This is not a group devoid of talent, for sure. Dotson and George were four-star recruits. So are two true freshmen — Texas high school standout Parker Washington and Ke’Andre Lambert-Smith — and TJ Jones, a redshirt freshman from Florida whose ability to attack the ball in one-on-one situations has drawn praise from defenders.

The three starters, at least in the first week, likely will come from that group, and Sullivan-Brown will push for a consistent role, as well.

But to the veterans, the most important thing to look for early on isn’t one or two players breaking out; it’s the continuity of the group as a whole that will push the offense over the top.

George said the trick is going to be developing a personality as a unit, finding a rhythm as a whole and forming a bond with quarterback Sean Clifford that makes each of them as reliable a target in new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s scheme.

Problem is, developing that personality takes the experience they don’t have. In fact, they’re only now starting to see it develop.

“I think it just comes organically, and obviously, not being all together for a long period of time doesn’t help that,” Sullivan-Brown said. “But I think as we started to practice more as a unit and we started to grow together, it did just grow organically into what type of receiver group we want to be. I think it’s growing into that right now.”

The depth

Seniors

Juniors

Sophomores

Freshmen

Isaac Lutz

Norval Black

Daniel George

Johnny Crise

Benjamin Wilson

Cam Sullivan-Brown

Henry Fessler

Jaden Dottin

Jahan Dotson

TJ Jones

Justin Weller

Malik Meiga

KeAdnre Lambert-Smith

Parker Washington

 

Newcomer to watch

KeAndre Lambert-Smith

WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith

Washington can easily wind up being the most targeted of the freshmen, but KeAndre Lambert-Smith might be the receiver the coaching staff is counting on being a big contributor most this season.

Washington has tremendous hands and runs crisp routes, but Lambert-Smith is a bona-fide game-breaker, and he’s likely the best hope to replace the deep threat lost with KJ Hamler’s departure to the NFL and Dan Chisena’s graduation.

“Those guys have been playing phenomenal,” Dotson said. “They’re coming to practice every day feeling like they have something to prove to everyone, like they have a chip on their shoulder. I love the way those guys are coming to practice, playing and competing. That’s one big thing about those two. They love to compete. That’s what we need in our room right now. They just want to get better with everything. They’re willing to listen. They’re coachable. They’re two great guys to have.”

Numbers game

27Dotson had 27 catches last season. The rest of Penn State’s returning receivers combined for 19.

Player who needs to shine…

Jahan Dotson

WR Jahan Dotson

Here, we go with Dotson. Putting the star tag on Lambert-Smith before he has even played a game is a bit unfair, and while they’ve both shown flashes of being productive, George and Sullivan-Brown have never done it consistently. It seems more likely that Dotson will have to step up his game a few notches and be the clear No. 1 in this group — especially early in the season.

If he can’t develop into a high-volume receiver for the Nittany Lions, there’s no other obvious candidate to do so. Hard to image this offense being one that contends if Dotson doesn’t have a big season.

Finally, Lions break ’21 recruiting drought

Kick time set for Lions opener

Those worried about a potential nontraditional start to an already crazy 2020 Big Ten football season don’t have to fret.

Penn State is kicking off its campaign on Saturday afternoon.

The athletic department announced today that the Nittany Lions’ season opening game at Indiana will kick off at 3:30 p.m. from Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. The game will air on FS1.

Blue-White Illustrated is also reporting that two other kickoff times have been set, one a primetime clash and another a noon start.

PSU recruiting again taken to Pounds-town

PSU recruiting again taken to Pounds-town

*I know this isn’t the Yankees blog, so excuse the featured photo above. It’s just the most appropriate one I could think of for this particular story…

On Thursday, I published a column talking about the impending verbal commitment of offensive lineman Diego Pounds, a standout from North Carolina who seemed at the time like a virtual lock to announce he’d be heading to Penn State this afternoon. Basically, the column indicated what seems obvious enough to anyone who follows Penn State’s recruiting: The Nittany Lions needed some positive mojo with prospects heading into the homestretch, and Pounds was most likely to provide that initial boost.

Well…

Not sure what this says for Penn State, really.

Like I said, Pounds seemed like a Penn State lock for a long time during his commitment, and something clearly changed late. That something, for sure, was North Carolina getting very active in the process. The Tar Heels are his home-state school, and to be frank, it would seem difficult at a time like this — when you can’t exactly visit all the college campuses you’d love to see — to encourage a kid to go too far from home, to somewhere completely foreign, if there’s another option.

But here were are, at the end of September (typically a really important time in the recruiting cycle for Penn State), talking about a three-star prospect flipping the script on Penn State, and that says as much as anything.

In a class that was going to be somewhat on the larger side, the Nittany Lions are stuck at 13 committed prospects right now. They’re in desperate need of momentum right now, but they don’t have it and, as troubling, they aren’t getting it even when it seems like it’s within the staff’s grasp.

These things always seem to have a way of working themselves out. I’m sure Penn State will get a perfectly good replacement for Pounds, and they’ll round out the 2021 class as best they can. But perception is probably 70 percent of recruiting, if not more. Perception, right now, is that prospects Penn State wants are looking away from Happy Valley.