2019 College Football Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

(Photo: Michael Mauti, 2011 Penn State Football)

Penn State Nittany Lions

Head Coach: James Franklin

2018 Record: 9-4, 6-3 Conference

Bowl: 24-27 Loss to Kentucky at Citrus Bowl

Season Win Prop: 8.5 wins (O -115, U -115)

Make 4 Team Playoff: Yes +2000, No -5000

The Penn State Nittany Lions have some rebuilding to do but do not expect the program to really fall off that much due to it. Gone is starting QB Trace McSorley as well as five others who entered the NFL draft early, and on top of that—11 players transferred out. Those transfers were not big losses because most had been replaced by better and younger talents, but with all the turnover there are obviously some holes for head coach James Franklin and his staff to sort out.

So, let us take a look at those holes and the reasons why Penn State should be back in “about” the same place it was in 2018 when it won nine games and made it to the Citrus Bowl (Where it fell to the Kentucky Wildcats)–though there might be some regression, anyway. NCAA football oddsmakers seem to agree setting the over/under on season wins at 8.5.

Offense

Tommy Stevens was projected to take over for McSorley, but his transferring is one of the 11 that did somewhat hurt. The fifth-year senior was short on experience, but he did know the program, which would have counted for something at least. Moreover, even though he threw just 41 passes, the next most-experienced four have a total of seven collectively under their belts. Redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford gets the nod, and he is fairly talented even if mostly without relevant experience. He did throw for two TDs in his seven pass attempts, but he has a long way to go to catch up on the experience and savvy this team had under McSorley in the pocket.

Beyond the QB Issue, the Nittany Lions are counting on other inexperienced players to play big minutes elsewhere in the offense. KJ Hamler caught 42 passes for 754 yards last year, but outside of him, there is not much. Jahan Dotson caught 13 for 203 yards last year, and he will function as the No. 2 receiver. Eight of the team’s 12 scholarship receivers are freshmen and sophomores. The lone exceptions are George Campbell, Weston Carr, and a few talented walk-ons. Campbell is a grad transfer from FSU and Carr comes from Azusa-Pacific. Pat Freiermuth could be a surprise option of the less-heralded choices, though.

The running backs are also young and inexperienced. Ricky Slade and Journey Brown are entering their sophomore seasons while Noah Cain and Devyn Ford are true freshmen. Slade rushed 45 times last year and he probably starts the season as the primary ball carrier due to that. Brown added some weight this offseason and should be able to better withstand hits and break more tackles. He looked great in spring doing just those things.

The OL has three starters returning, but it will have a redshirt freshman taking over at tackle as Rasheed Walker replaces Ryan Bates, who departed early for the NFL.

Defense

Penn State led the NCAA in sacks last year with 3.6 per game. It was No. 4 in tackles for loss with 8.2 per game. It is an aggressive defense every year.

Yetur Gross-Matos had eight sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss last season and will return. Robert Windsor comes back and totaled 7.5 sacks in 2018. The other spots are more questionable, but Jayson Oweh is a top-flight redshirt freshman who could be ready sooner than later. At LB, the Nittany Lions are hoping Micah Parsons breaks out. He entered as a five-star recruit and he led the team in tackles last season with 83. Joining him are Cam Brown and Jan Johnson. This trio should excel.

The Lions also return CB John Reid and S Garrett Taylor. Penn State ranked No. 8 in pass efficiency defense last season, so having these mainstays should keep them strong in this facet. Tariq Castro-Fields will start at the other CB opposite Reid, and Jonathan Sutherland and Lamont Wade vie for the other safety spot opposite from Taylor. The Lions will be a top pass defense again this season, assuming all this talent can simply stay healthy.

Special Teams

The Lions have a new special teams coordinator in Joe Lorig, who hails from Memphis University. Punter Blake Gillikin is back with his 43.3 yard-per-punt average (school best). Jake Pinegar hit 16 of 24 FGA last season as a freshman. KJ Hamler will take both kickoff and punt returns, and he averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return a year ago. Special teams are quite strong, obviously.

Final Word

Penn State has some serious holes to address, but it has managed to do so in the past so to see it happen again should be unsurprising. That said, Penn State is in the tougher division in the Big Ten, and its schedule does it few favors. The inexperienced nature of this group might show itself at ugly and unpredictable times, and that kind of caps the win total a little lower than it might be otherwise. The Lions continue to bring in great recruits, but it will take some time to gear up to something extremely meaningful given the strength of the East Division as a whole.

Prediction: 8 wins (under)

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