Penn State coach James Franklin opened the Big Ten Media Days last month establishing a sense of belonging. Franklin stood on the grounds of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the site of his team’s 38-31 victory over Wisconsin in the 2016 Big Ten title game, and discussed his team’s return plans.
Franklin called it “one of the best” conference championship games played, but the Nittany Lions present with him said they were “tiredness” to hear about five years ago. They are more tuned in to another game against Wisconsin: the one scheduled for September 4 at Camp Randall Stadium to start the 2021 season.
The Penn State locker room countdown clock has been ticking for months, and the fact that it says “Wisconsin” makes the game’s challenge for the Big Ten title more real.
“I have to admit having the Wisconsin logo up there, I think, really raised the bar for our guys,” Franklin said. “And they understand that we better be ready to go.”
The Lions begin their championship campaign on Friday, starting training camp four weeks before leaving for Madison. They have a lot to accomplish in a short period of time. Where to start ? Here is a preview.
Can Mike Yurcich revive Penn State’s quarterback game?
The Lions placed second in the Big Ten in total offense and third in scores last season. Great place to build from, right? Instead, Franklin chose to rebuild.
Despite those stats, the Penn State offense struggled in 2020 for a variety of reasons, many of which centered around the quarterback. So Franklin hired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to reclaim some of that stylistic magic from 2016 that made this team so dangerous.
Franklin wants the opposing teams to defend the width of the field, release their offensive weapons into space and run “with power and authority.” Ultimately, it all revolves around the quarterback.
Sean Clifford is the established starter, and the Lions don’t really have a number 2 yet. As a result, Clifford and Yurcich will be closely linked during camp.
Substitute Ta’Quan Roberson threw a varsity pass and rookie Christian Veilleux hasn’t played since 2019. Additionally, Franklin has found no place in the transfer market, leaving the Lions with three-quarter stock for the season. If Clifford can’t make it happen, Penn State’s offense could return to the same rut of 2020.
DC Brent Pry Has He Found His “Responsibility”?
This offseason, Pry has rated his 2020 defense quite candidly, saying the group lacked “accountability.” This brutal realization underscored how Penn State has allowed at least 30 points in each of its first five games of the season.
“We weren’t very responsible last fall,” said Pry. “Guys too often [were] does not play as part of the defense. It’s on me, it’s on the guys. We all own each other and are committed to being more responsible. “
Pry and Franklin are entering their 11th season together as head coach / coordinator, a relationship that has mostly gone through rough times. Last year definitely marked a slowdown on the pitch. Pry’s squad are talented, especially in the last seven, and Penn State has produced some solid pass-rushers in recent years. Pry gets a break for last season, but the 2021 defense can’t look so flawed.
Who emerges in the running back?
It’s a fascinating position, with four returning full-backs and a transfer player who have different backgrounds and characteristics. Yurcich and running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider certainly have options.
Noah Cain, who took part in parts of the spring drills after being injured last season, looks set to go. Freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes have learned a lot from the past year, while Devyn Ford has to “plan for a whole season,” Seider said.
Meanwhile, veteran John Lovett could be the speed back Penn State lacked last season after Journey Brown was forced to retire. Franklin noted Lovett’s speed and experience during spring drills, suggesting the Baylor transfer quickly became a key player in the post.
Is the offensive line ready to dominate?
Franklin made annual predictions about his offensive line becoming a Big Ten force, but those predictions were generally insufficient. The coach has done it again this year, so let’s wait to judge.
However, Penn State begins camp with most of its programming questions answered. Tackles Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace really tighten the line. Walker projects himself among the linemen of the country. according to NFL Draft Bible, and Wallace is not far behind. In fact, line coach Phil Trautwein said next year “you should talk about Caedan as a very, very high draft pick”.
Meanwhile, veteran Mike Miranda has moved to center and goalkeeper Juice Scruggs is set for a decisive season. Additionally, the offense has a solid set of blocking tight ends in Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson that will help the cause. Maybe Franklin will be right about his line this season.
Who are the breakout players to watch?
Cornerback Kalen King captured the most discussion during the spring drills, becoming the true freshman in the 2021 recruiting class to have the most impact. His twin brother Kobe also clicks on the linebacker. Franklin called the brothers “so mature” in their first round of spring exercises.
Linebacker Curtis Jacobs will bring an athleticism the defense was lacking last season. And defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, a veteran transferred from Temple, could be the portal’s biggest player. Ebiketie has All-Big Ten potential.
Penn State will hold its first media day of in-person football on Saturday since 2019. Stay tuned all afternoon for updates from Beaver Stadium.
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