Penn State's Cotton Bowl win capped a successful 2019 season for the program. An 11-2 record and the emergence of some of the top players in all of college football give the Nittany Lions plenty of momentum heading into a huge 2020 season. With the calendar turning over this week, let's take a look at 10 questions facing Penn State this offseason.
1. Can Kirk Ciarrocca lead a reload of the passing game?
The rushing offense finished the season on a high note against Memphis, but the passing offense did not impress. Sean Clifford showed plenty of potential in 2019, but his footwork and pocket presence are areas of weakness as he prepares for his redshirt junior season. He has a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in Ciarrocca, and Clifford’s development will be priority one. (Not far behind will be wide receiver play, which we will get to shortly.)
2. What internal solutions can solidify the pass defense?
The answer at cornerback is likely pretty simple, as better injury luck and more experience for the team’s bevy of young corners should account for plenty of improvement next season. Safety is more complicated, and there are questions to answer there. Lamont Wade made big plays in 2019, but needs to be more consistent, especially with his pursuit angles and tackling. JaQuan Brisker will be asked to do more on rushing downs than he was as the nickel safety in 2019. Can Jonathan Sutherland be more than a special teams ace? Can freshmen Tyler Rudolph, early enrollee Enzo Jennings, or JuCo transfer Ji'Ayir Brown make an impact with more playing time available?
3. Who replaces KJ Hamler and Justin Shorter at wide receiver?
The return of Pat Freiermuth at tight end helps, but Penn State enters 2020 with only one locked in starter at wide receiver in Jahan Dotson. Will he move to the slot, where he played when Hamler was injured in 2018? It remains to be seen. Daniel George will likely be at an outside receiver position, as he was mostly platooning with Shorter throughout 2019. The two other veterans on the roster are Cam Sullivan-Brown, who missed most of the season with an injury, and Mac Hippenhammer, Hamler’s backup in the slot who struggled in 2019 and finished with only one reception. The rest of this group is comprised of seven freshmen, two redshirts and five who are brand new recruits. Wide receivers coach Gerad Parker will have his work cut out for him.
4. Can the offensive line take the next step under a new coach?
It is clear that head coach James Franklin feels this unit has underachieved, as evidenced by the dismissal of Matt Limegrover. This group has talent and experience: center Michal Menet and right tackle Will Fries will be seniors, Rasheed Walker will be a second year starter at left tackle as a sophomore, and guards Mike Miranda and C.J. Thorpe spent 2019 platooning, setting both up to start in 2020. The job now is to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts for the first time in the Franklin era.
5. What will special teams look like without Blake Gillikin and Hamler?
The obvious replacement for Hamler is Dotson, who stepped in for him at times in 2019. There are plenty of athletic skill position players who could take over on kick returns, including any number of the team’s running backs. The punt returning job is trickier to learn, though, so Dotson as punt returner is a safe bet at this point. Punter is a little bit more of a question mark. There is no new scholarship punter in this class, so it may be a battle between walk-ons and a scholarship kicker like Jordan Stout.
6. Does the running back platoon continue?
The four returning scholarship running backs have said all of the right things, and there is value to rotating. It keeps players fresh, it prepares many players to be ready to fill in when injuries occur, and it avoids long-term wear-and-tear that NFL teams account for in draft evaluations. The latter two have become obvious just this season, when Noah Cain was injured and Miles Sanders was drafted in the second round and competed for Rookie of the Year honors for the Philadelphia Eagles.
That said, Journey Brown made a massive leap in 2019 and has feature back ability. Cain is the ideal short yardage back on the team and can make the tough runs in four-minute situations. That leaves Devyn Ford, a high ceiling recruit with a combination of abilities, having to fight for playing time with former five-star Ricky Slade, who may need to add slot receiver capabilities to get on the field with consistency in 2020. Add in the fact that two more blue chip recruits are on the way in this recruiting class, and it will be another balancing act in 2020 for running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider.
7. How does the pass rush replace Yetur Gross-Matos?
After a slow start, the pass rush showed up in the second half of the season, and Gross-Matos had his best game on the biggest stage against Ohio State. His productivity and attention will be missed. Shaka Toney has weighed going pro as well, and his decision has not yet been announced. Toney’s return would stabilize things, and Jayson Oweh is an obvious candidate to step into a starting role in Gross-Matos’ stead. Shane Simmons is experienced, and coming off a full season in which he was finally healthy. Adisa Isaac has athleticism to rival that of Oweh and could be primed for his own breakout. How this unit performs ultimately may come down to whether or not Oweh and Isaac can fulfill their massive potential.
8. Who plays middle linebacker with Jan Johnson gone?
With Jan Johnson out of the picture, middle linebacker is up for grabs. His reserve for two seasons has been Ellis Brooks, who is solid and makes sense as the next starter. However, two higher ceiling linebackers in Jesse Luketa and Brandon Smith both have the potential to play middle linebacker, and the idea of getting those two on the field along with All-American Micah Parsons may be tempting. Brooks, Luketa, and Smith are three potential starters vying for two positions (Cam Brown’s outside linebacker position is also vacant).
9. What freshmen will step up at positions of need?
Penn State ended up relying heavily on six of its true freshmen in 2019. Cain and Ford stepped in ready to go at running back. Isaac and Smith were too talented to keep out of the front seven rotation. And a mixture of injuries and undeniable talent brought Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson into the mix at cornerback. The Nittany Lions are bringing back a lot of depth at many positions, so the answer to this question likely comes from a combination of readiness and need.
There is a ton of talent but limited depth at linebacker, so top recruit Curtis Jacobs may be too good to keep off the field. We saw it from Smith last season, and from Parsons and Luketa the year prior. At safety, early enrollee Enzo Jennings is a great athlete who may get into the mix as well. Tight end Theo Johnson may be game ready, though the depth there and his recent injury may make the odds murkier. And at wide receiver, early enrollee KeAndre Lambert-Smith is likely more ready to get on the field than the talented but notably thin Jaden Dottin.
10. Can the 2021 recruiting class be what fans hoped the 2020 class would be?
Penn State is pleased with its 2020 class, but for many fans, the class is defined by what could have been. Top recruits like defensive end Bryan Bresee (Clemson) and wide receiver Julian Fleming (Ohio State) were early Penn State leans who ended up elsewhere. That’s how a class ranked 13th nationally and third in the Big Ten ends up feeling like a disappointment. The lackluster 2018 season may have been a factor. The 2019 season was a success, in which Penn State outperformed most expectations and won 11 games. Combining that with stability as Franklin enters his seventh season at the helm armed with a new contract extension, many successful NFL case studies, and excitement around the potential for 2020, and next year’s recruiting class may be one to get excited about.