Penn State’s football team opens preseason camp Monday with plans to put its 11-11 record over the past two seasons in the rearview mirror.
The Nittany Lions have a new defensive coordinator (Manny Diaz), seven returning starters on offense, five on defense and a talented freshman.
Coach James Franklin has job security with a new 10-year, $75 million contract and increased pressure from fans after back-to-back disappointing seasons.
Here are 10 questions to ponder as Penn State prepares for its Sept. 1 prime-time opener at Purdue:
1. Can Sean Clifford become a major league outfielder?
A lot of that depends on if Clifford can stay healthy and if he can be more consistent. Clifford played at a high level last year, including arguably the best performance of his college career against Auburn, before he suffered an undisclosed injury at Iowa. He was up and down the rest of the season. If he gets better pass protection and stays healthy, he will have the backs and receivers to have a great season.
2. How will Penn State replace Jahan Dotson?
Not easy. The Washington Commanders drafted Dotson with the 16th overall pick in the NFL Draft after he caught 91 passes for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley is a good place to start, as he had 87 catches for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Also, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith are back as rookies for the third straight season and may be ready to blossom.
3. Will the offensive line get better?
This may be the most important question for the offense. Juice Scruggs (center) and Kaydan Wallace (right) are the returning starters, but Olu Fashanu, Landon Tengvall and either Sal Wormley or Cornell commit Hunter Noorzad show promise. Last year, Penn State ranked 118th in the Football Bowl Division in rushing yards and 94th in sacks allowed. Those numbers need to improve or the Lions are in for another mediocre season.
4. Will the running game be more effective?
Franklin promised the Lions won’t abandon the ground game like they did several times last year. The presence of veterans Kevon Lee, Devin Ford and Kasia Holmes along with talented freshmen Nick Singleton from Gov. Mifflin and Kaytron Allen can only help Penn State’s run. Undoubtedly, the defenders need the activation of the forwards.
5. Will offensive coordinator Mike Jurcic hold his own?
Franklin watched Jurcic for several years as he developed the offense at Oklahoma State and Texas State. Yurtich’s first season at Penn State was not a success. The Lions ranked 82nd or worse in the FBS in total yards (82nd), points (90th), sacks allowed (94th), red zone offense (96th), tackles allowed for a loss (106th) and a sack (118th). They scored 30 points just three times in 13 games. In his fourth season, he will have a quarterback as the starter at his disposal, along with talented running backs and receivers. If that doesn’t translate into spikes in points and yards, fingers will be pointed at Yurtich.
6. How will the return of PJ Mustipher and Adisa Isaac affect the defensive line?
In a very significant way. Mustifer was playing at an all-conference level when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Iowa’s sixth game. Penn State’s defense was never the same the rest of the year. He may be the best nose tackle in the Big Ten. Isaac, a fancy pass rusher, missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. If he joins Nick Tarburton, Outback Bowl standout Smith Wilbert and Maryland transfer Chop Washington, it will be a big hit for the Lions.
7. Who will play in central midfield?
Excellent question. Former North Schuylkill standouts Tyler Elsdon and Coby King will compete throughout camp, according to Franklin, who called the position one of the team’s biggest question marks. Incoming freshman Abdul Carter could earn some playing time there by the end of the season. The Lions are happy with veteran outside linebackers Curtis Jacobs and Jonathan Sutherland.
8. Will the secondary still be strong?
Jaquan Brisker and Tarik Castro-Fields are gone after being taken in the NFL Draft, but safety J’Air Brown and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. are back, along with nickel Dequan Hardy. Brown led the FBS with six interceptions while showing a knack for big plays. Porter uses his long arms and body to disrupt receivers. Keaton Ellis could replace Brisker, while Cullen King is likely to succeed Castro-Fields.
9. How will Manny Diaz be different from Brent Pry?
Expect new defensive coordinator Diaz, a former Miami head coach, to be more aggressive than Pry, who is now the head coach at Virginia Tech after a big run at Penn State. Diaz’s defense ranked among the national leaders in takeaways and sacks. He has shown that he is not afraid to risk his call to play.
10. Which freshmen can stand out during the camp?
At Big Ten Media Days, Franklin strongly hinted that several members of Penn State’s highly regarded freshman class are poised to make an immediate impact. Let’s start with Singleton, who is listed as the starting running back in Phil Steele’s college football preview. Dani Dennis-Sutton, a five-star recruit like Singleton, could earn a spot in the rotation at defensive center. Four-star prospect Kaden Saunders could do the same at wide receiver.