Deep Stats: Penn State Ranks 100th in Returning Production

By Craig Fritz on February 1, 2019 at 9:30 am
Former Penn State Quarterback Trace McSorley
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation's resident deep-analytics statistician, Bill Connelly, put out his annual list of returning production, and the news isn't great for the Nittany Lions. Penn State ranks 100th out of 130 FBS teams, with just 44 percent of offensive production returning, and 68 percent of defensive production returning. Does that mean it's time to panic and go doom-and-gloom for 2019? Not exactly. Let's dig into it a bit.

Connelly began tabulating his returning production metrics in 2016 to give fans a clearer picture of what is coming back for their team beyond simply the number of returning starters. Now that there are a few years of data, some conclusions can be drawn:

  • A returning passing game is the most critical element of predicting continued offensive success.
  • A returning running game is less important.
  • A returning offensive line is among the least important on offense.

The higher the number, the more likely returning production in these areas is to coincide with strong offense:

Receiving yards correlation: 0.324
Passing yards correlation: 0.234
Rushing yards correlation: 0.168
Offensive line starts correlation: 0.153 

  • Returning production on D seems to be more important than on offense.
  • Continuity in the secondary is the most critical element to continued success.
  • Returning defensive line production appears to be the least critical year over year.

The correlations for defensive back tackles and passes defensed is stronger than the correlations for overall tackles.

Defensive back tackles correlation: 0.404
Defensive back passes defensed correlation: 0.377
Overall tackles correlation: 0.325
Overall passes defensed correlation: 0.324
Defensive back tackles for loss correlation: 0.299
Overall tackles for loss correlation: 0.269
Linebacker tackles for loss correlation: 0.250
Linebacker tackles correlation: 0.250
Linebacker passes defensed correlation: 0.228

Defensive line correlation is similar to offensive line correlation.

What does it mean?

So everyone knows Trace McSorley's historic career is over, and Miles Sanders is off to the NFL. That's 78 percent of last year's rushing yards, and 89 percent of last year's passing yards. Gulp. The good news here is that returning receiving yards has the strongest correlation to success, and Penn State returns 64 percent. If you go by the last six games of the season only (Juwan Johnson injured, Brandon Polk and Jon Holland passed on the depth chart), it moves way up to 75 percent of receiving yards returning.

This is definitely a good thing. Based on the numbers above, we know that running back and offensive line are nearly plug-and-play positions and Penn State's recruiting has stocked those spots with talent. The main key (obviously) will be McSorley's successor. Whether Tommy Stevens or Sean Clifford start at quarterback, they will have some serious weapons at their disposal. Both should both be eminently comfortable in the offense as well. This will be Stevens' fourth year in this offense, and Clifford's third. The question becomes will the talent and playbook knowledge carry forward to game day?

On defense, the picture is much rosier. Penn State returns three starting defensive backs, all of whom had really exceptional years. Very early in 2018 we talked about the marginal efficiency of Garrett Taylor because he was having an All-American level beginning to the season. And while his numbers didn't remain otherworldly, they were still REALLY good. Taylor ended the season with a marginal efficiency of 9.1 percent. Tariq Castro-Fields (9.3 percent) and John Reid (12.8 percent) also had tremendous years. The average marginal efficiency (lower numbers are better) is 23.3 percent for corners, and 20 percent for safeties, so all of them were outstanding. Brent Pry needs to find a running mate for Taylor, but he has good options with Jonathan Sutherland, LaMont Wade and Jaquan Brisker.

Overall, the Lions return 83 percent of their tackles based on S&P+ (opens Google Sheet), which removes garbage-time statistics and varies significantly from school-held stats. While they lose their two best defensive linemen in Shareef Miller (-27.7 percent) and Kevin Givens(-35.3 percent), we know that replacing DL production should be the easiest. Among other departures, Amani Oruwariye (20 percent) figures to be the most difficult to replace, while Nick Scott (39.7 percent) and Koa Farmer (11.6 percent) tracked as below-average performers.

This little returning production could easily spell doom for most FBS teams. But no one in Penn State's realm (except maybe Notre Dame at 97) has recruited talent and depth as well as James Franklin. Last year, a massive loss of prolific receiving and rushing was too much for the Lions to overcome, even with all of their passing production back. With so much talent at the skill positions heading to 2019, it looks like quarterback play will be the key for the Nittany Lions, but you already knew that.

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