One Question Facing Each Position Group on the Penn State Offense

By Nick Polak on May 26, 2020 at 8:46 am
Sep 27, 2019; College Park, MD, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) celebrates with Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) after scoring a touchdown against the Maryland Terrapins in the first quarter at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Though we don't know exactly when we'll next see Penn State take the field, when it does, it will we looking to answer several big questions. James Franklin has done a masterful job getting the roster to a state where it can earnestly compete for conference championships and playoff berths year in and year out. Despite the stockpile of talent that has been assembled in Happy Valley, though, there are a few legitimate questions that face this team on both sides of the ball.

Today, we'll break down the biggest question facing each position group on the offense.

Quarterbacks: What are realistic expectations without spring practice?

There are many challenges that an offense faces when bringing in a new offensive coordinator. Learning the playbook is one thing, but getting the quarterbacks and play-callers truly on the same page is another. Sean Clifford flashed plenty of potential in his first year as a starting quarterback in Happy Valley, but the next time he takes the field, he'll be doing so with a new voice calling the plays. Without the typical spring and potentially fall camp offseason practice time, it's worth questioning what fans really should expect from the Ohio native in his first season with new coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.

Most expect to see the charismatic Clifford take a big jump in year two just as Ciarrocca's former prodigy Tanner Morgan did in Minneapolis, but should the lack of a traditional offseason temper expectations a bit? 

Running Backs: Is Journey Brown in for a big workload or will there still be a big split in carries?

A year ago, the Penn State rushing attack was the most balanced it's been since 2014 when Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton basically split the carries evenly. In 2019, Journey Brown (129), Noah Cain (84), Devyn Ford (52), and Ricky Slade (47) all surpassed the 47-carry mark and came oh so close to all hitting the 50-mark. Slade's carries are up for grabs as the former five-star chose to enter the transfer portal, but four-stars Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee are set to immediately fill the opening in the group. The early-enrolled Holmes was even already being talked about as someone who could contribute right away.

The depth of talent Ja'Juan Seider has at his disposal is limitless, and yet, it's worth asking exactly how often he should dip into that depth. Over the latter half of the 2019 season, Journey Brown became one of the better backs in the country. Should the Lions ride him in what may be his final year on campus, or continue to split things up among the Lawnboyz?

Wide Receivers: Can anyone not named Jahan Dotson become a reliable option and how far can the team go if they can't?

The wide receiver woes of the past two seasons have been well-documented, with the disturbing trend of dropped passes being the focal point. Perhaps equally as impactful, however, was the lack of any other standout options stepping up and making their mark outside of new Denver Bronco KJ Hamler and the man set to lead the group in 2020, Jahan Dotson. Dotson showed sure hands, savvy route-running, and big-play ability as a true sophomore and is clearly positioned for a big junior season. Outside of him, though, this group is one big question mark.

Will Daniel George start to put everything together while replacing now-Florida Gator-Justin Shorter? Can one of the Florida redshirt freshmen (TJ Jones and John Dunmore) step up and take a starting role and run with it? What type of impact should we expect from true freshmen KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and Parker Washington?

Perhaps even more important, does this team stand a chance to compete for a Big Ten title and playoff berth without someone stepping up behind Dotson? Can this offense reach its full potential without a secondary target on the perimeter?

Tight Ends: How can you best set up Pat Freiermuth for success without proven receivers to take attention away?

It's not that Penn State fans need to wonder whether or not Pat Freiermuth will be effective in 2020 – there's a reason he's been a mainstay in the first round of the early 2021 NFL mock drafts. Rather, fans should wonder how much attention he's going to attract from opposing defenses without proven entities out wide to support him. No. 87 will still get plenty of opportunities to abuse linebackers and box out smaller safeties en-route to plenty of first downs and tuddies, but if the receivers don't take a step forward, those one-on-one matchups may be fewer and further between for the Massachusetts native.

Of course, any attention Freiermuth draws is less attention on the receivers, so it's a give-and-take relationship. But the current construction of the 2020 offense would seem to suggest that using Freiermuth as a focal point would be ideal. The question is whether or not that can happen without a field-stretcher like KJ Hamler lined up with him.

Offensive Linemen: How much rotating is too much rotating for a unit stacked with talent?

Barring injury, Penn State's starting offensive line on opening day will be Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda, Michal Menet, CJ Thorpe, and Will Fries, It's been some time since we could confidently say what the lineup in the trenches will be this far out from the fall, but there is no doubt what the best version of this unit looks like next season. However, the same was almost true of last year's group, with the right guard spot being the one up for grabs between Thorpe and Miranda. Despite that, we saw a 31.4% snap share for backup Des Holmes. And now, promising youngsters Caedan Wallace, Anthony Whigan, and Bryce Effner don't have redshirts to worry about preserving, and Juice Scruggs is recovered from his car accident.

The depth of the Nittany Lions offensive line room is arguably (nearly inarguably, though) the most impressive it has been in a loooooong time. On pure talent alone, there are likely ten different players that would at least hold their own in a starting role. But with Walker, Miranda, Menet, Thorpe, and Fries, new position coach Phil Trautwein has a starting five with talent, game experience, and most importantly, chemistry. There is plenty to be said for getting backups meaningful game time with an eye on the future, but this could be the best offensive line Penn State fans have seen in a long time. It may just be worth giving them every snap they can handle as a unit.

Be sure to check back on Wednesday for the biggest question facing each position group on the defensive side of the ball.