The Nittany Lions officially start fall camp today, which means some of the questions that have lingered since the end of last season will begin to be answered. Let's take a look at some of the biggest storylines expected to play out over the next four weeks.
Drops and inconsistent play plagued the wide receivers all of last season, turning the unit into the offense's Achilles' heel. New wide receivers coach Gerard Parker's main goal should be making sure his guys secure the catch. The receivers group is so stocked full of talent, the playmaking should easily take care of itself.
Parker's players praise for the new drills he's implemented to help the unit get back to the basics. With a slightly less-mobile quarterback now leading the way, the Nittany Lions figure to be looking to air it out a bit more, so simply making catches that need to be made will go a long way to helping the offense take that next step.
The other safety
Per Dan Smith's defensive snap counts, Nick Scott played the most reps of anybody on the Nittany Lion defense last season. He's now in the NFL, and the Nittany Lions have a handful of guys looking to take his spot next to Garrett Taylor.
The presumed starter heading into camp has to be Lamont Wade. A former top-50 prospect, Wade has drawn praise from the staff since his move to safety last season and ran with the first-team during spring practice. He withdrew his name from the Transfer Portal just a few weeks after entering it, so he must feel confident in his chances to win the job.
Wade will have to beat out the No. 1 JUCO safety in the country, Jaquan Brisker, and rising sophomore Jonathan Sutherland. The latter actually had more safety reps than Wade last season, although it was mostly in relief of Garrett Taylor's position. This could be a battle that goes up until the last week of camp and even into the season. It's crucial that the staff gets this one right. If they do, that Nittany Lions could have their best secondary in the past 15 years.
Defensive tackle and linebacker rotation
Defensive tackle and linebacker were probably the team's two biggest question marks one year ago. A year later, there's a lot more depth, as well as more overall talent, but the rotations still have to be worked out.
Kevin Givens surprised a lot of people by declaring early, leaving the starting spot next to Robert Windsor open. Antonio Shelton is expected to fill that slot to open camp, but there are as many as five guys fighting for time in the rotation. Competition brings out the best in players, so here's hoping such a deep group helps to put this group on par with the defensive ends.
At linebacker, the starters are pretty much locked in to start the season. It's going to be Cam Brown, Jan Johnson, and Micah Parsons. With four very talented underclassmen linebackers coming off the bench, Brent Pry will have his hands full trying to figure out the perfect rotation to both produce on the field and build experience for the future. Overall, it's a great problem to have and sure shine that Linebacker U is back.
For both groups, expect to see plenty of guys rotating in and out over the opening weeks of the season as the coaching staff looks for the right combination.
Last season, the Nittany Lions had one of the deeper quarterback rooms in the conference. You had an unquestioned starter, a talented, experienced backup, and two young guys you could be patient with. Now, that's far from the case.
There are four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Three of them are freshmen, eligibility-wise, and only one has attempted a pass at the collegiate level. No matter how you spin it, that's not great.
All indications are Sean Clifford is going to be Penn State's starter and Will Levis will be his backup. After that, you have two true freshmen whose redshirts you would love to maintain. The staff needs to figure out which of the two is more ready right now, so they have their third-string quarterback in case of emergency. Both Ta'Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr. enrolled early, but making sure they're ready to see Big Ten defenses is a whole new ballgame.
The Nittany Lion defense is coming in with an amount of hype not seen this decade, and rightfully so. The unit has blue-chip talent all over the field, and a stable of young guys eager to prove themselves in the two-deep.
Penn State has become known for the offense over the past few years, so this hype is somewhat uncharted water for Brent Pry and Co. They'll need to make sure the guys stay focused if they want to live up to that hype. It's easy to get sucked in when you have all this outside noise singing your praises. The best thing the team can do is to block out the hype, and continue to do the things that put them in position to be regarded so highly.
Reloading the running back room
Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders have ushered in a new era of great Penn State backs. Ja'Juan Seider has a lot to figure out before the offense takes the field in under 30 days to keep that tradition going.
Ricky Slade is expected to be the starter, and rightfully so. Despite being just a true sophomore, he's the most experienced of the group. If he can clean up the fumble issues, he could pick up where Sanders left off. It was expected Journey Brown would be the No. 2 guy heading into camp, but a summer suspension may have thrown a wrench in those plans. Now reinstated, he has some work to do if he wants to stay ahead of Noah Cain and Devyn Ford.
Both Cain and Ford are going to play, so this camp will decide exactly how much. Cain offers a nice change of pace, so the staff has to find the perfect role for a downhill runner like him to play in an offense built around speed.
shoring up Special teams
Special teams were an absolute nightmare last season. From bad coverage, being fooled by trick plays, and inconsistent kicking and punting, just about everything went wrong. Thankfully, James Franklin brought in special teams guru Joe Lorig to right the ship.
Lorig's special teams units at Memphis were consistently some of the best in the AAC, if not the country. He's working with higher-level athletes now that he's at a major program, so he should be able to get more out of his guys.
The biggest thing has to be making sure everyone knows their roles. It seemed like nobody knew how to react to fake punts or onside kicks last season, which all comes down to bad preparation. Lorig has had time to install his philosophies, so if the unit is able to return to its 2017 form or even improve, we'll no longer have to worry about a special teams blunder costing a game or two.
What storyline will you be following most closely?