The Five Biggest Questions Facing Penn State This Spring

By Matthew Filipovits on March 15, 2021 at 8:51 am
Dec 12, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Jesse Luketa (40) reacts following a tackle during the first quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan State 39-24. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports
© Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

What's the situation at Quarterback?

Penn State's quarterback play was a mess last season, with neither Sean Clifford nor Will Levis able to hold on to the starting job. The latter transferred to Kentucky earlier this year, leaving Clifford alone at the top of the depth chart to open spring practice. Ta'Quan Roberson and Christian Veilleux have next to no experience, but with a new position coach and coordinator, their figures to be a chance to make an impression.

Realistically, Sean Clifford is going to be Penn State's starter when they head to Madison Labor Day Weekend, and that won't be a problem if he can regain his 2019 form. Regardless, he's going to have a short leash this spring. That should only push him to regain the form that helped him lead Penn State to 11 wins two years ago.

What Changes Will Anthony Poindexter Bring?

Penn State's defense needs a new set of eyes. The unit, especially the secondary, has fallen apart late in games, leading to more than a few fourth-quarter collapses over the years. New safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter has helped call defenses for more than half a decade and will provide a much-needed new perspective.

With Brent Pry still at the helm, the defensive philosophy will remain mostly the same but even small adjustments could go a long way to putting their fourth-quarter woes behind them. Mike Yurchich is the assistant with the most daunting task in front of him this spring, but Poindexter isn't far behind.

WhAt's going on at Defensive end?

With Shaka Toney graduated and Jayson Oweh declaring early for the NFL Draft, the Nittany Lions have been left uncharacteristically thin and inexperienced at defensive end. It's fair to assume Adisa Isaac is going to secure one starting spot after racking up 27 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks in his first two seasons on campus. He saw his playing time increase after Oweh missed a few games with an injury down the stretch, and performed well in his expanded role.

Opposite of Isaac, there are a handful of guys who are battling to earn those coveted first-team reps. Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie dominated G5 teams, and while it's a big jump from that level to the Big Ten, he has the talent to perform at an All-Conference level. Nick Tarburton and Smith Vilbert have a bit of experience, but neither has played more than a few drives in any given game. 2020 early enrollee Bryce Mostella has bulked up to nearly 250 lbs, which is still a bit small for his 6'6 frame. Still, he's a guy who could rocket up the depth chart with a strong spring. Zuriah Fisher, who is now listed as a defensive end on the roster, could be a wildcard in this race. 

How Quickly can Mike Yurcich Get His offense Installed?

The Nittany Lions are on their fourth offensive coordinator in five years, but unlike the last time they made a change, there is actually spring ball to start installing the offense. Mike Yurchich has surely started laying some of the groundwork for his high-flying offense but it's time to put that installation on a fast track.

Penn State's offense is littered with upperclassmen who have gone through this process before, which will help in terms of timing this process. If Yurchich is able to get the offense in a good spot, that will take some of the pressure off of the unit heading into fall camp.

What's the winning combination at Linebacker?

There's a lot of talent in Penn State's linebacker room, but the staff didn't always put the guys in the best position to win last season. Brandon Smith can play all three spots, but he's clearly best suited on the outside. Ellis Brooks is a middle linebacker through and through. Jesse Luketa can play outside, but it's clear he's best suited in the middle.

For Penn State to get the most out of this unit, they'll probably need to rotate Brooks and Luketa in the middle, leave Smith outside, and go with Curtis Jacobs or Charlie Katshir at the SAM. If they do want Luketa to play outside, it would be smart to have him there exclusively on obvious running downs. The sooner the staff can find the right combination, the sooner they can focus on taking pressure off of a secondary and giving Penn State a dominant defense once again.

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