Penn State Playing Time Trends at the Bye: Offense

By Dan Smith on October 31, 2019 at 9:30 am
Oct 19, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KJ Hamler (1) and quarterback Sean Clifford (14) celebrate following the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
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We are at the two thirds mark of the 2019 regular season, and with the bye here, it is a good time to reflect on what has taken place with the team's depth chart. Let's start with the offense, where we have seen some things we have never seen before for this offense at running back, tight end, and on the offensive line.

Quarterback

No. Player Eligibility Snaps (%)
14 Sean Clifford Sophomore 492 (87.7%)
7 Will Levis RS Freshman 62 (11.1%)
15 Michael Shuster Junior 7 (1.2%)

Clifford is playing slightly less than McSorley was last season (finished season at 92.8% of snaps), mainly because of how many games the Nittany Lions have had large leads in earlier this year. This despite McSorley having to leave parts of games in 2018 due to his various injuries.

Running Back

No. Player Eligibility Snaps (%)
4 Journey Brown Sophomore 162 (28.9%)
21 Noah Cain Freshman 161 (28.7%)
3 Ricky Slade Sophomore 133 (23.7%)
28 Devyn Ford Freshman 115 (20.5%)
40 Nick Eury Junior 7 (1.2%)

This level of rotation is totally without precedent. For the last three seasons, the Nittany Lions have had a clear feature back in Saquon Barkley (78% each in 2016 and 2017) or Miles Sanders (74% in 2018). Even in Barkley's freshman season of 2015, he ended the season playing more than half of the overall snaps (54%).

Cain's stock had appeared to be on the rise, but a bizarrely limited performance against Michigan, and an injury-shortened games against the Spartans have kept him about even with Brown, who has started the most games at running back. As Cain's injury showed, they are very well prepared to deal with an injury, though his skillset is the most unique of the four.

Wide Receiver

No. Player Eligibility Snaps (%)
5 Jahan Dotson Sophomore 451 (80.4%)
1 K.J. Hamler Sophomore 423 (75.4%)
6 Justin Shorter RS Freshman 207 (36.9%)
11 Daniel George RS Freshman 181 (32.3%)
88 Dan Chisena Senior 115 (20.5%)
12 Mac Hippenhammer Sophomore 60 (10.7%)
85 Isaac Lutz Junior 39 (7.0%)
81 Cam Sullivan-Brown Sophomore 38 (6.8%)
23 Weston Carr Senior 31 (5.5%)
80 Justin Weller Sophomore 17 (3.0%)
89 Colton Maxwell Junior 6 (1.1%)
8 John Dunmore Freshman 5 (0.9%)
10 T.J. Jones Freshman 5 (0.9%)

This is the steadiest we've seen the program lean on two top receivers since the 2016 season. The rotation of Shorter and George is more balanced then we've seen, even moreso than the DeAndre Thompkins/Saeed Blacknall pairing. The team's increased use of 12 personnel (two tight end sets) has decreased the need for that third receiver position anyway.

Tight End

No. Player Eligibility Snaps (%)
87 Pat Freiermuth Sophomore 394 (70.2%)
83 Nick Bowers Senior 175 (31.2%)
82 Zack Kuntz RS Freshman 51 (9.1%)
86 Brenton Strange Freshman 29 (5.2%)

Bowers' usage is without precedent; Freiermuth is playing more than last season, as he did not earn the starting job until conference play in 2018, but the team has not had a clear 1-2 punch like this before. Bowers played sparingly up until this season due to a rash of injuries, and guys like Jonathan Holland and Tom Pancoast were mixed in only when necessary. Their comfort level with Bowers has led them to use more two tight end sets than at any point since the firing of offensive coordinator John Donovan, who used them for all of the wrong reasons.

Offensive Line

No. Player Eligibility Snaps (%)
62 Michal Menet Junior 498 (88.8%)
71 Will Fries Junior 485 (86.5%)
74 Steven Gonzalez Senior 483 (86.1%)
53 Rasheed Walker RS Freshman 378 (67.4%)
73 Mike Miranda Sophomore 338 (60.2%)
69 C.J. Thorpe Sophomore 282 (50.3%)
75 Des Holmes Sophomore 198 (35.3%)
72 Bryce Effner RS Freshman 48 (8.6%)
55 Anthony Whigan Junior 18 (3.2%)
79 Caedan Wallace Freshman 18 (3.2%)
68 Hunter Kelly Junior 17 (3%)
77 Saleem Wormley Freshman 6 (1.1%)

They have rotated offensive linemen before when young guys were nipping at the heels of veterans, but that usually led to defined starters by the fourth or fifth game of the year. Penn State has kept its word that it intended to rotate three guards and three tackles. Walker is clearly ahead of Holmes at left tackle, and the latter is getting experience to be prepared for injuries and nothing more. The Thorpe/Miranda battle is much more interesting. Miranda started every game until the last, and generally saw either even playing time or more of a 70-30 split in most games. Thorpe started and outplayed him against Michigan State, however, and likely has a much higher ceiling. Miranda has seen time at left guard and center, whereas Thorpe has almost exclusively stuck at right guard.

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