Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 12 Penn State

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn

No. 12 Penn State

2018 record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Replacing Trace McSorley

After three seasons of record-setting efforts from Trace McSorley, Penn State will have a new starting quarterback in 2019. McSorley threw for 9,899 yards and 77 touchdowns while rushing for 1,697 yards and 30 scores.

Now, following Tommy Stevens’ decision to transfer to Mississippi State, it appears the reins will be handed to redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford. Clifford hasn’t officially been named the starter — he is competing with redshirt freshman Will Levis — but it would be a surprise if it wasn’t Clifford starting in Week 1 vs. Idaho.

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James Franklin told Yahoo Sports that Clifford and Levis present similar skill sets and will be able to keep the threat of a running QB in the offense.

“They’ve done a really nice job. They both can make all the throws we need them to make. They are both much bigger than Trace,” Franklin said. “Sean is 6-2 and Levis is probably 6-3, 6-4. Sean is probably 215. Levis is probably 230 pounds. They both run 4.6 or better, so they’ll both have that aspect of our offense as well. Losing Trace is a significant loss for our team and for our offense. He was such a great culture driver for us. But those guys have done a great job and there’s a lot of confidence from our coaches and from our team.”

The new QB will be surrounded by young talent at the skill positions. With Miles Sanders off to the NFL, Ricky Slade is in line to be the top running back after putting up 257 yards and six scores as a freshman. At receiver, PSU struggled mightily with drops in 2018 and Franklin is expecting a leap forward from the guys behind K.J. Hamler. Tight end Pat Freiermuth, coming off a freshman season with eight TD catches, is also in line for a big year.

Beyond the uncertainty at QB, another area of concern is the offensive line. The group returns three starters but was inconsistent last year. Redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker is likely the new starter at left tackle following the departure of Ryan Bates to the NFL.

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 15: Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions throws a pass for a touchdown against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the second half at Beaver Stadium on September 15, 2018 in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Penn State QB Sean Clifford saw action in four games in 2018. He is the favorite to start in 2019. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

A ‘special’ defense

As the 2018 season progressed, you could see some flashes of significant potential on Penn State’s defense.

Yetur Gross-Matos emerged as one of the more disruptive defensive ends in the Big Ten. Five-star freshman Micah Parsons ended up leading PSU in tackles despite being inexperienced at linebacker. Garrett Taylor emerged as an all-around playmaker at safety. John Reid, after missing a season with a knee injury, started to look like his old self at corner.

There were still a few question marks as the calendar turned to 2019, but Franklin told Yahoo Sports that defensive tackle and safety, two specific positions of concern, turned out to be in better shape than the staff realized.

“Very similar to baseball, in football you want to be strong up the middle. That was a question mark going into spring but we’re probably further along at safety and defensive tackle than we thought we were going to be,” Franklin said.

Franklin used the word “special” to describe his team’s upside at defensive end, linebacker and cornerback.

Gross-Matos is the headliner on the line, but speedy edge rusher Shaka Toney was consistently in the backfield (7 TFL, 5 sacks) in a reserve role and will now move to the starting spot. Defensive tackle Robert Windsor (38 tackles, 10 TFL, 6.5 sacks), a senior, also took a big step forward last year.

Next to Parsons at linebacker will be two returning starters, seniors Cam Brown and Jan Johnson while Reid, a senior, and junior Tariq Castro-Fields return at cornerback. Lamont Wade, a former five-star recruit who has mainly played special teams, appears to have the inside track to start next to Taylor at safety.

Reload or rebuild?

Entering Franklin’s sixth season, Penn State is in an interesting spot. The Nittany Lions dug out from the ashes of NCAA scholarship reductions and broke through with a Big Ten title in 2016, Franklin’s third season. A second straight 11-win campaign — featuring two losses by a combined four points — followed before a drop off to 9-4 last fall.

Along with McSorley, Saquon Barkley is gone. And so are 10 other NFL draft choices from the past two seasons. Entering 2019, the question is if Franklin has built the program to a point where it reloads rather than needing a season to rebuild.

When you play in the Big Ten East, that is sort of a loaded question, too. PSU’s nine wins last fall were only good enough for third place in the division. That’s what happens when you contend with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State on a yearly basis.

But there are certainly reasons for optimism in 2019. He knows he’s got a young team, but Franklin said this is the fastest he’s had in his nine years as a head coach. Franklin and his staff have recruited at a really high level. Will the inexperience prove to be costly against the Buckeyes and Wolverines, or will a roster stocked with unfamiliar faces — most of whom were high-level recruits — make a surprising run to the Big Ten title like the 2016 team did?

Penn State head coach James Franklin responds to a question during the Big Ten Conference NCAA college football media days Friday, July 19, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
James Franklin is entering his sixth season as Penn State head coach. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Biggest game: vs. Michigan (Oct. 19)

PSU should be a significant favorite in its first five games before things get turned up a notch with a trip to Iowa on Oct. 12, Michigan on the 19th and then a trip to East Lansing to face Michigan State on Oct. 26. Those three games should shape the rest of the season with Michigan being the only home game in the group. Will PSU be in the College Football Playoff picture with a trip Ohio State looming in late November? Or will PSU slide into the middle of the pack in a crowded Big Ten?

Impact player

WR K.J. Hamler

Hamler emerged as one of the most explosive players in the Big Ten last year as a redshirt freshman. As he showed with his 93-yard touchdown against Ohio State, he can take it to the house any time he touches the ball. In 2019, PSU hopes to get the ball to Hamler as often as it can by moving him to different spots in the formation. In 2018, he caught 42 passes for 754 yards and five touchdowns. He also averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return.

Biggest question mark

From Nate Bauer of Rivals’ Blue White Illustrated: When asked recently about his team’s biggest questions coming into the 2019 season, Penn State head coach James Franklin pointed to his offensive line, receivers, defensive tackles, and safeties. The omission of quarterback, though, is as much of a statement as the others. Welcoming a new signal-caller after a 40-game span of Trace McSorley at the helm, the Nittany Lions will undoubtedly have a series of adjustments that will need to be made to find the same groove that propelled explosive 2016 and 2017 seasons on the offensive side of the ball.

Blue White Illustrated’s breakout player

QB Sean Clifford

Along with wideout K.J. Hamler and linebacker Micah Parsons, each of whom showed flashes of great potential through the 2018 campaign, projected starting quarterback Sean Clifford is the easy pick for a breakout candidate on this year’s team.

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Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

DE Yetur Gross-Matos

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: Penn State has had only one first-round pick since 2011 (Saquon Barkley), but Gross-Matos has a chance to end that streak in 2020. We expect the junior pass rusher to strongly consider coming out early if he can approach the same level of play he reached in his first year starting. In 2018, he collected eight sacks and a whopping 20 tackles for loss.

It’s clear Gross-Matos is still developing, but he’s under the watchful eye of one of the best DL coaches in the country, Sean Spencer, who helped turn Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib and Shareef Miller into second-, third- and fourth-round picks, respectively.

Scouts could have some questions about his maturity, given that Gross-Matos was suspended for what’s believed to be a fairly minor team violation this summer. He also must prove to be a better run defender and play with better power in his still-developing frame. But there’s a lot of excitement about his potential this season, and for good reason.

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 10: Yetur Gross-Matos #99 of the Penn State Nittany Lions hits the arm of Jack Coan #17 of the Wisconsin Badgers as he throws during the second half at Beaver Stadium on November 10, 2018 in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Penn State DE Yetur Gross-Matos had eight sacks and 20 tackles for loss in 2018. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Fantasy sleeper

WR Justin Shorter

Shorter, a five-star recruit in 2018, arrived on campus with high expectations but ended up playing in just four games, preserving his redshirt. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Shorter dealt with injuries throughout the year and caught just three passes for 20 yards. Now healthy, Shorter is a projected starter on a young, talented Penn State offense. He could end up having a big year.

Over/under projection

Over 8.5

If you look at the schedule, PSU will presumably be a big favorite in seven games. That leaves five others — at Iowa, vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, at Minnesota and at Ohio State — to get you over the 8.5 number. If you believe that Clifford will hold his own at quarterback, leaning toward the over is a pretty easy choice.

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