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The summer convergence of Big Ten media, coaches, and players will take place this week in Chicago. As they arrive in the Windy City from Happy Valley, Penn State head coach James Franklin and his player representatives will have some tough questions to answer after last season.
Penn State limped out of the gates of the modified 2020 season to a historically bad 0-5 record before turning a corner and ending the season on a four-game winning streak. The Nittany Lions missed an opportunity to even their record and avoid a losing season by deciding as a team not to participate in a postseason bowl game at the end of a trying year. But perhaps the biggest question for Penn State to answer in 2021 was whether or not you can chalk up the 2020 season to being a product of unique circumstances or if it is a sign of a program on the decline.
So what are we to actually make of 2020?
Head coach James Franklin will be very likely to be asked some questions riding along the lines of wondering how Penn State bounces back in 2021 after last year’s setbacks. You can fully expect Franklin to push forward and leave 2020 behind him, but it is an important question to raise for anyone trying to figure out who Penn State is in 2021.
Prior to last season, Penn State had won 11 games three out of the previous four seasons with three appearances in a New Years Six bowl game and winning two of them. This is why the 2020 results were so surprising for many. Injuries and player availability throughout the week were issues as well, as Penn State at times may have been riding a thinner roster than realized at times due to COVID protocols.
So when Franklin is asked about last season and what to expect this season, expect the standard response that Penn State has a lot going right in the program and they are ready to prove something after last season.
Will Penn State still add a transfer quarterback?
As things stand right now, Penn State’s offense is Sean Clifford or bust, or so it would seem. One of the main talking points during the spring football practice season was what Penn State will do to add depth and exp[erience at the quarterback position. Pulling a target from the transfer portal seemed obvious, and Penn State did make a push to add to its roster at the position before ultimately losing out on TJ Finley from LSU. Spring has now come and gone and the summer is half over and Penn State still has not found a suitable passer in the transfer portal to pad the depth chart.
So, is this still part of the game plan, or is Penn State now going to move forward running the risk of not having experience behind Clifford? The ceiling may be pretty high for options like Taquan Roberson and Christian Veilleux, but Franklin made it seem pretty clear he’d much prefer to have a more experienced option available should he need it this fall.
NEXT: What is the confidence level of the defensive line?
How quickly will Penn State’s defensive line come together?
If there is one unit on the Penn State team I tend to have a little more confidence in than others, it may be the defensive line. Penn State has developed a pretty solid track record of developing defensive linemen but that will be put to the test a bit this season after a year of so much roster turnover at the position.
That’s not to say Penn State is lacking in experience in the trenches, however. The additions of Arnold Ebiketie from Temple and Derrick Tangelo from Duke have given Penn State some automatic starters with experience to rely on. PJ Mustipher is returning as one of the anchors of the defensive line, and the rise of a player like Adisa Isaac could make for a formidable defensive line.
The faster Penn State’s defensive line finds its identity, the better off the Nittany Lions should be in 2021.
Is this a running back by committee?
Penn State’s plans at running back were thrown a nasty screwball before last year ever really got going. Journey Brown was forced to medically retire shortly before the start of the season, taking out one of the true breakout players for Penn State and in the Big Ten from the previous season. Then, just as the season got started, Noah Cain suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury. Just like that, Penn State was down its top two running backs and trying to survive with inexperienced players at a key position.
This year, Penn State could have a potentially solid running back situation. Cain will hopefully be fully recovered and back to carry the load on offense. But last season saw Keyvone Lee get some opportunities to show what he can add to the ground game, and Devyn Ford should grow from his experience in 2020 as well. Throw in Baylor transfer John Lovett and a developing Caziah Holmes and Penn State has the look of a pretty solid running game situation.
Who steps up at receiver?
Penn State knows it already has one of the best wide receivers in the nation with the return of Jahan Dotson. There are no concerns at the go-to receiver after Dotson’s brilliant 2020 campaign. And Parker Washington had a solid freshman season as well by proving to be a nice compliment to Dotson. But Franklin has made it clear his staff is looking for at least one more player to go to through the air, and they are not afraid to have a player change position if that is necessary.
Ideally, Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will be able to find ways to get the most out of what he has, because there is some young talent to play with and develop. KeAndre Lambert-Smith is a player many hope will become more a part o the passing game after catching 15 passes for 138 yards in 2020, and that would certainly help.
Big Ten media days begin Thursday, July 22 in Chicago. Franklin and Penn State player representatives Tariq Castro-Fields, Jahan Dotson, and PJ Mustipher are all scheduled to meet with the media on Thursday.