Penn State’s first losing season since 2004 and the worst start in program history are etched in the minds of players and coaches.
The Nittany Lions have worked fervently to put 2020 behind them and once again become Big Ten East contenders in 2021.
The biggest move came when coach James Franklin sacked Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator after one season and hired Mike Yurcich to replace him.
Franklin wants the Penn State offense, which has nine returning starters, to regain the identity it had under former coordinator Joe Moorhead in 2016-17.
“We’ve kind of reached a whole new level with Joe,” Franklin said at the start of preseason camp. “We come back to that. It’s really who we wanted to be the entire time we’ve been here.
“With the athletes that we have at the receiver, the tight end and the running back, we want to involve as many guys as possible, hit as many guys and have as many guys in space as possible.”
Franklin also wants to improve the defense, which has seven returning starters from a unit that allowed 27.7 points per game, the most in school history.
Here is a position by position breakdown of the 2021 Nittany Lions:
Sean Clifford returns for his third season as a starter after an eventful year. He hopes to prosper like the other quarterbacks under Yurcich’s tutelage. He will have a lot of weapons at his disposal.
Ta’Quan Roberson has played sparingly at Penn State, but he appears to be the choice as Clifford’s replacement ahead of real freshman Christian Veilleux.
At the end of the line : If Clifford improves his accuracy and timing, the attack could be prolific.
It is the deepest position in attack and perhaps in the whole team. Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Keyvone Lee, Caziah Holmes and John Lovett, who have led Baylor three times, all have starting experience.
Franklin said he would prefer a three-way rotation, which could make at least two guys unhappy. After Cain suffered a season-ending injury in last year’s opener, Lee led the Lions in rushing into freshman.
At the end of the line : Cain, Lee and Lovett are among the top three full-backs. Who ends up starting is to guess.
Penn State has three returning starters up front after Exeter graduate Michal Menet and Will Fries were NFL draft picks.
Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace give the Lions a pair of very good tackles. Mike Miranda slips down center after starting guard last year. Juice Scruggs will start on the right, and Anthony Whigan, Des Holmes or Sal Wormley will start on the right.
Offensive line coach Phil Trautwein said he expects to see more progress in his second year on the staff after the Lions averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. in 2020.
At the end of the line : With so many talented full backs and receivers, there’s a lot of pressure on the offensive line.
Franklin said several days ago that Penn State may have the best tight end group he has seen since becoming a varsity coach in 1995.
Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson played a long time in the second half of last season after Pat Freiermuth suffered a shoulder injury that ended the season. They didn’t catch a lot of passes, but they blocked really well.
At the end of the line : Expect Strange and Johnson to be a formidable pair.
Jahan Dotson led the Big Ten in yards and touchdowns last year and felt aggrieved. He wants to prove that he is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country.
Parker Washington was reliable last year, even though he was a freshman. He caught 36 passes for 489 yards and six scores.
Who will be the third wideout? It could be KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who made five starts and 15 catches last year, also in freshman. It could also be a veteran, like Daniel George or Cam Sullivan-Brown, or a freshman in a red shirt, Malick Meiga.
At the end of the line : Finding a productive third starter could create room for Dotson and Washington.
This is the most consistent and productive position for Penn State since hiring Franklin in 2014. However, questions arise this year.
The Lions lost Shaka Toney and Odafe Oweh ends against the NFL, then promise junior Adisa Isaac a serious non-football-related injury. Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie, Nick Tarburton and Smith Vilbert are the best candidates to start there, but Ebiketie is the only defensive end on the roster with at least one sack.
The inside line is strong and solid with PJ Mustipher and Hakeem Beamon at the start and Duke transfers Derrick Tangelo and Aeneas Hawkins as reinforcements.
At the end of the line : Generating a relentless pass rush, a Penn State staple, will be a challenge.
After the squad had a bad season in 2020, defensive coordinator Brent Pry moved Brandon Smith to the weak side and closer to the line of scrimmage and sophomore Curtis Jacobs to the strong side, where he can cover. receivers.
Ellis Brooks returns to the middle linebacker after posting a record 60 tackles last year. The odd man could be senior Jesse Luketa, who is expected to split his time with the linebacker and finish.
Tyler Eldson and Charlie Katshir should see the action as backups.
At the end of the line : Linebackers will be more athletic than last year. Expect a big year from Smith.
Penn State’s defensive backs are deep, talented and flexible.
Up to six cornerbacks could play, but Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr. will likely start. The position is so strong that Keaton Ellis, who started five games last year, has been taken to safety. Transfer to South Carolina Johnny Dixon, Marquis Wilson and Daequan Hardy will also see the field.
Jaquan Brisker, an Associated Press preseason All-American, will be in the shelter. Ji’Ayir Brown, his former junior college teammate, is competing with Ellis and Jonathan Sutherland to be the other security. Tyler Rudolph and freshman Jaylen Reed could also be in the game.
Pry plans to move the security around the field depending on the situation.
At the end of the line : If the secondary can increase his interceptions, he could be among the best in the Big Ten.
Jake Pinegar will once again handle the majority of the set kicks, and Jordan Stout the punters and kickoffs. Both have room for improvement, Pinegar with his field goal tries from outside 40 yards and Stout with his punt.
Dotson set a school record last year averaging 24.6 yards on eight punt returns. Finding a kick-back can be difficult. Brisker has expressed interest, and Ford and Washington have some experience from the past year.
At the end of the line : Pinegar and Stout have to be better if the Lions are to fight.