State of the Roster: Taking Stock of Changes to the Penn State Football Team

By Nick Polak on January 19, 2021 at 9:30 am
Nov 23, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions safety Lamont Wade (38) and safety Jaquan Brisker (7) and safety Garrett Taylor (17) celebrate the fumble recovery during the third quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
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The 2021 offseason has been predictably busy to this point for the college football world. Coming out of a shortened season, with flexibility next fall when it comes to scholarships, and recruiting classes full of players who haven't been able to visit with coaching staffs for months, it was fully expected that there would be plenty of roster movement.

With Monday marking the final day for players to declare for the NFL Draft, let's take stock of where Penn State's roster stands in terms of who's staying, who's leaving, and who's joining.


Coaching Staff

Out: Kirk Ciarrocca
In: Mike Yurcich

After just one season in Happy Valley, James Franklin decided to part ways with Kirk Ciarrocca in favor of bringing in former Texas offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. The long-time Oklahoma State coordinator brings with him a fact-paced, high-powered offensive system that should look closer to what the Lions had under Joe Moorhead a few years ago. Yurcich will also coach the quarterbacks in Happy Valley.

Quarterback

Out: Micah Bowens (Transfer Portal)

*Update - Bowens has transferred to Oklahoma

Bowens, who would have been a redshirt freshman this fall, departs Penn State after just one season. It was always going to be an uphill battle for Bowens considering the way the depth chart was set up, and now he will try to find a new home elsewhere. Bowens was a recent entry to the portal and hasn't yet chosen a new school.

If you had asked most Penn State fans at the end of the 2020 season, most would have likely assumed that a transfer quarterback would be joining the team for 2021. While that could certainly still be the case after some depth charts are solidified in the spring, as of right now, Sean Clifford, Will Levis, and Ta'Quan Roberson will return for Yurcich this fall.

Running Back

Out: Joseph Bruno (Transfer Portal)
In: John Lovett (Transfer from Baylor)

Bruno, a former walk-on who rushed for 35 yards in the season finale against Illinois, was an unexpected but not unsurprising entrant to the transfer portal. He was one of the top sprinters in the state as a high schooler and will now look to see if he can earn a scholarship elsewhere.

Joining the room is Lovett, the Baylor transfer. He rushed for 1,803 yards on 355 carries (5.1 ypc) for his career with the Bears and will add depth to a strong group of running backs. While Devyn Ford is expected to return, Noah Cain is expected to fully recover from injury, and Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes gained valuable experience this season, the team saw how quickly a position that looks to be deep can be made very thin. Lovett may not make the type of grad transfer impact that Trey Sermon did with Ohio State, but he'll be a welcome addition to the room.

Wide Receiver

In: Jahan Dotson

Though he could have declared for the NFL following a breakout 2020 season, Dotson will return to Happy Valley for one more season. Penn State will be happy to have him back to lead what is still a very young but talented position room with Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith behind him. Dotson surely would have been selected in the NFL Draft, but with a smaller frame and just one season of big-time production, he will likely improve his stock with another strong season.

Tight End

Out: Pat Freiermuth (NFL)

As expected, the all-time leader in touchdown receptions by a tight end in Happy Valley will move on to the NFL. Freiermuth will almost surely be one of the first tight ends to hear his name called after a stellar collegiate career.

Offensive Line

In: Rasheed Walker
Out: CJ Thorpe (Transfer Portal), Will Fries (NFL), Michal Menet (NFL)

Similar to Dotson, Walker surely would have been selected by a team in the NFL Draft had he declared, but another season of big-time production, especially with the benefit of a full offseason with Phil Trautwein, he could vault into the first round discussion for the 2022 Draft when all is said and done.

Thorpe is currently in the portal looking for a new home where he will look to play defensive tackle as he did at the beginning of his Penn State career. Thorpe was the starter at right guard in the season opener but eventually lost the job to Fries when Caedan Wallace entered the lineup at right tackle.

Both Fries and Menet could have returned for one more season thanks to COVID, but both will head to the Draft instead where both should have great chances to make NFL rosters.

Defensive Line

In: Derrick Tangelo (Transfer from Duke), Arnold Ebiketie (Transfer from Temple)
Out: Jayson Oweh (NFL), Shane Simmons (NFL), Shaka Toney (NFL), Judge Culpepper (Transfer to Toledo), Antonio Shelton (Transfer to Florida)

The position with the most movement so far has been the defensive line. Oweh, who has been projected as high as a low-teens pick in the first round of the NFL Draft, was expected to declare after a strong season even if it didn't look like one in terms of sacks. Toney will likely hear his name called as well after a career in which he consistently improved each year. Simmons will surely enter his name into the draft pool but seems content to move forward with his future in the real world as well.

Culpepper couldn't quite grab the bigger share of playing time in 2020 that he was thought to be ready to grab, and will now likely take on a bigger role with Toledo. Shelton was a surprise addition to the portal, but will now join the Gators for his 6th season of college ball.

To help replace these names, the staff brought in Tangelo and Ebiketie (whose name I WILL learn how to spell correctly by the fall). Tangelo should be the natural replacement for Shelton after putting up nearly identical numbers with the Blue Devils despite playing with less talent around him. Ebiketie has 10.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks in his career and should have a great shot at a starting role in place of either Oweh or Toney.

Cornerback

In: Tariq Castro-Fields, John Dixon (Transfer from South Carolina)

The Penn State cornerback room should be a strength in 2021 with Castro-Fields' return being the biggest reason. When he's been healthy, he's arguably the team's best corner. Injuries have played a major role in his story, however, and he will hope to put together a fully-healthy season before heading to the NFL. He and Joey Porter Jr. should combine to form one of, if not the, strongest cornerback pair in the conference.

Dixon will join the room in 2021 as well. He was previously recruited by the Nittany Lions and surely has some sort of relationship with former Gamecock coach John Scott Jr. Neither Keaton Ellis nor Marquis Wilson seemed to take too large of a step forward in 2020, so Dixon could potentially be one of the top options in the second unit.

Safety

In: Jaquan Brisker
Out: Lamont Wade (NFL), Trent Gordon (Transfer to Arkansas)

After a strong finish to a season of growth for Brisker, he'll return to Penn State for one last go-round. While he still has work to do, with a full offseason behind him, he could be primed for a huge 2021.

On the other hand, his co-starter at safety, Lamont Wade, will depart for the NFL. The former blue-chipper didn't quite have the career that he may have envisioned, but his knack for making plays could very well land him an NFL role despite his height. Gordon, who started his career as a cornerback, will hope to crack the two-deep with the Hogs.

looking ahead

It's hard to imagine the changes for Penn State are finished. The depth at defensive end stands out as a glaring, still-remaining need. James Franklin will take a hard look at any player who could help his team, and with additions often come departures. With the free year of eligibility, the head boss and his director of player personnel Andy Frank have a complicated puzzle ahead to get a roster ready to challenge for the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff in 2021.

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