Penn State spring football storylines: Focus on a Big Ten title

It’s easy to imagine the conflicting emotions Penn State fans felt last season.

On the one hand, the Nittany Lions reached double-digit wins for just the second time in five years and captured their first Rose Bowl title since 1994. First-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz did a wonderful job in his debut, and the freshman running back tandem of Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen combined for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns.

On the other hand, Penn State did not beat Michigan or Ohio State to finish third in its own division, the ruthless Big Ten East. And if the impending College Football Playoff expansion had started two years earlier — it won’t happen until 2024 — the Nittany Lions would have been invited to a 12-team party despite two conference losses.

Fast forward a few months and expectations are as high as ever for head coach James Franklin entering his 10th year in Happy Valley. By stacking several impressive recruiting classes in a row, Franklin has positioned the Nittany Lions where they rest comfortably in the top 10 in nearly every ranking that’s too early for the 2023 season. There’s reason to believe his current team can finally challenge for the crown Big Ten.

Here are some storylines to watch as Penn State heads into spring practice:

Passing the QB torch

After 46 starts and more than 10,000 passing yards, veteran quarterback Sean Clifford exhausted his eligibility with a victory in the Rose Bowl earlier this year. The sixth-year senior leaves Happy Valley with school records for passing attempts (1,335), completions (817), completion percentage (61.2), passing yards (10,382) and passing touchdowns (84).

But as the saying goes, there’s a reason some players return to school for a fifth or sixth season, and it almost always revolves around their average career prospects. If the NFL really wanted these guys, they probably wouldn’t stay in college that long.

That was the case for Clifford, a big quarterback who finished his career as Penn State’s starter with an 11-win season in 2019 and another in 2022. Neither of those campaigns was exemplary enough to throw the Nittany Lions in the CFP. for the first time, however, and the two years in between produced just 11 combined wins.

Enter rising sophomore Drew Allar, a former five-star recruit who Penn State fans believe can match what Clifford did and then push the program over the line. Allar was the No. 32 overall prospect and No. 4 quarterback in the 2022 recruiting cycle and committed to the Nittany Lions with scholarship offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Tennessee, among others. His 6-foot-5, 238-pound frame is more than ready to handle the physicality of life in the Big Ten.

A year ago, Allar completed 35 of 60 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns as Clifford’s primary backup. He showed enough of his top-notch arm strength and big-play potential that fans clamored for Allar to replace Clifford at various points in the season.

Allar now enters spring football atop the depth chart and with more experience than any quarterback on the roster. He will split snaps with redshirt freshman Beau Pribula, a former three-star prospect, and true freshman Jaxon Smolik, another three-star prospect who enrolled in January.

“We’re going to have to put somebody in first,” Franklin said during a news conference in early February. “Based on how the season ended and Drew’s role last year, that would be him. But we’re going to need those two guys, specifically Pribula and Allar, it’s too early to talk about Smolik, but we’re going to. We need those two guys not not only compete, but also take on an important leadership role. Nobody cares that they’re young. They fill that position, and a big part of that position is leadership. I thought Sean did a great job. job with that “.

Will Penn State’s success make the Big Ten better?

Will Penn State's success improve the Big Ten?

Joel Klatt reflects on the bright future of the Nittany Lions.

A new alpha around the corner

What a luxury it must have been for Diaz to inherit such a talent-rich secondary last season. Diaz arrived at Penn State after three seasons as the head coach at Miami, and the new coordinator propelled the Nittany Lions to the top of college football in a host of defensive categories: fourth in opposing quarterback completion percentage ( 52.1%); tied for eighth in passing touchdowns allowed (12); eighth in opponent red zone conversions (73.8% scoring rate); tied for sixth in fewest passes allowed over 50 yards (one).

One of the most critical cogs in the Diaz machine was cornerback Joey Porter Jr., whose father, Joey Porter Sr., was a longtime running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a redshirt junior, Porter developed into one of the best corners in college football before battling season-ending injuries. Opposing quarterbacks threw in Porter’s direction just 30 times in 275 coverage snaps for a 50 percent completion rate and 143 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the third-lowest total in the country among cornerbacks with time of comparable play. He did not allow a touchdown.

Porter earned second-team All-America honors from five different media and was named first-team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and media. He passed on his remaining eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, where he is expected to be picked in the first round.

With Porter gone, youngster Kalen King should move up to the top spot on the depth chart. King played more snaps (557) than any Penn State cornerback last season and finished with the team’s highest coverage grade (90.6) per PFF. He allowed 27 catches on 59 targets for 343 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He limited opposing quarterbacks to an NFL stingy passer rating of 48.9 which ranked ninth nationally among players from Power 5 conferences with comparable snap counts.

How much those numbers were inflated by having Porter on the opposite side of the field, where little safety help was needed, is a legitimate question ahead of the 2023 season. As the new top dog, King should have plenty of opportunities to answer- it

WR Room Review

Franklin’s decision to fire wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield (2020-22) in January set the stage for sweeping changes to a position group that said goodbye to top target Parker Washington (46 catches, 611 yards , 2 TD) and Mitchell Tinsley (51 catches). , 577 yards, 5 TDs). The only other wideouts to eclipse 90 receiving yards last season were KeAndre Lambert-Smith (24 catches, 389 yards, 4 TDs) and Harrison Wallace III (19 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD), both returning in 2023.

To fill the coaching vacancy, Franklin brought in 40-year-old Marques Hagans from Virginia. Hagans spent a handful of seasons as a GM for the St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins before devoting himself to coaching at Virginia, his alma mater. He moved from offensive graduate assistant to wide receivers coach and then, in his final year with the Cavaliers, was given the title of associate head coach.

“I try to share everything I can with you that I think is appropriate,” Franklin said when asked why he fired Stubblefield. “I don’t necessarily think this is appropriate in this environment. But I will tell you, you know, our enthusiasm for Marques Hagans is very high.”

The Nittany Lions added depth to their receiving corps by signing two highly rated players off the transfer portal. Former Florida State wideout Malik McClain (6-4, 200 pounds) caught 33 passes for 396 yards and five touchdowns over two seasons with the Seminoles. McClain was a top-300 ranked four-star prospect in the nation coming out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., during the 2021 recruiting cycle. He chose Florida State over Alabama, Arkansas, Miami, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, among others.

The other addition, Dante Cephas (6-1, 178 pounds), will make a significant jump in competition from Kent State to the Big Ten. Cephas caught 82 passes for 1,240 yards and nine touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore in 2021 and added 48 receptions for 744 yards and three scores in nine games last season.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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