How Young Is Penn State's 2019 Team Compared to Previous Seasons?

By Dan Smith on November 6, 2019 at 8:45 am
Penn State running back Noah Cain
© John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State is 8-0, the fourth ranked team in the country, and favored to beat an undefeated, ranked team on the road this Saturday. With three straight road wins, two over ranked teams, the Nittany Lions are without question one of the best college football teams in the country in 2019.

For many, the 2019 season was thought to be a slight down year. An unfavorable schedule pitted Penn State in some of the toughest road situations in the Big Ten, and there was significant offseason turnover on the offensive side of the ball. Our very own staff predictions generally settled around 9 regular season wins.

The defense was supposed to be good, and it has been terrific. A stifling run defense and aggressive pass rush has combined to form what may be defensive coordinator Brent Pry's best unit yet.

It should not have been a huge surprise. The unit is talented, no doubt, but it is also experienced. With data I have collected from reviewing snap counts since Pry took over in 2016, we can put in context the experience of this unit.

Year 2019 2018 2017 2016
Senior 28.3% 19.2% 46.2% 18.7%
Junior 35.7% 40.7% 19.3% 42.4%
Sophomore 22.3% 20.9% 18.7% 25.9%
Freshman 13.7% 16.3% 15.7% 12.8%

As you can see, the experience on this unit is comparable to the 2017 team. That team was actually a much higher percentage of seniors, but the upperclassmen comparison is very similar.

The overall trend here is clear, however. Pry seems to have found a consistent method for developing players, getting them ready to be leaders in their junior and senior seasons, while still getting contributions and development in their early seasons.

Just look at some of the names in that 36% of sophomores and freshmen: Micah Parsons, P.J. Mustipher, Jayson Oweh, Adisa Isaac, Brandon Smith, Keaton Ellis. Graduations and NFL Draft departures are going to take some of the best talents away from this unit, but there is plenty to look forward to as well.

Still, it is tough replacing production with unproven, inexperienced players, no matter how talented. The pleasant surprise of this season has been how well the Nittany Lions have handled that on the offensive side of the ball.

Year 2019 2018 2017 2016
Senior 13.1% 14.3% 28.2% 15.4%
Junior 17.6% 41.3% 25.7% 36.6%
Sophomore 48.7% 14.6% 37.1% 26%
Freshman 20.6% 21.5% 9% 21.9%

This is without precedent. From 2016 to 2018, upperclassmen always constituted more than half of Penn State's offensive snaps. In 2019, over two thirds of the offensive snaps are coming from freshmen and sophomores.

Most of the anxiety surrounding Penn State's remaining schedule, aside from the looming battle in Columbus against Ohio State, stems from the inconsistency on the offensive side of the football. While there is legitimate criticism of some decision making by head coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, much of the frustration is likely due to nothing more than relying heavily on inexperienced players.

Penn State's would-be senior class of 2019 largely did not come back. Miles Sanders, Connor McGovern, and Ryan Bates did not return, electing to go pro. K.J. Hamler, Pat Freiermuth, and Jahan Dotson beat out older competition, and players like Juwan Johnson, Brandon Polk, Jonathan Holland, and Danny Dalton transferred as a result.

It has been an impressive offensive season considering the circumstances. And with young, talented players, there should be plenty of growth. The future looks bright for a Penn State team that is going to have a wonderfully talented group of juniors in 2020. But the great thing is that the 2019 team is right near the top as it is.

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