It’s easy to imagine the conflicting emotions Penn State fans felt last season.
On 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 failed to beat either Michigan or Ohio State to finish third in its own division, the ruthless Big Ten East. And had the impending College Football Playoff expansion kicked in two years sooner — 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 to where they are resting comfortably among the top 10 in nearly every set of way-too-early rankings previewing the 2023 season. There’s reason to believe his current team can finally challenge for the Big Ten crown.
Here are some storylines to watch as Penn State gets 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 Rose Bowl victory earlier this year. The sixth-year senior departs Happy Valley holding school records for pass 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 why certain players return to school for a fifth or sixth season, and it almost always revolves around their middling professional prospects. If the NFL really wanted those guys, they probably wouldn’t stay in college quite so long.
Such was the case with Clifford, a good-not-great quarterback who bookended his run as Penn State’s starter with an 11-win season in 2019 and another in 2022. Neither of those campaigns were exemplary enough to vault the Nittany Lions into the CFP for the first time, though, and the two years in between produced just 11 victories combined.
Enter rising sophomore Drew Allar, a former five-star recruit whom Penn State fans believe can match what Clifford did and then nudge 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 over scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Tennessee, among others. His 6-foot-5, 238-pound frame is more than ready to withstand 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 understudy. He flashed enough of his top-tier arm strength and big play potential to where fans were clamoring for Allar to replace Clifford at various points in the season.
Now Allar enters spring football atop the depth chart and with more experience than any quarterback on the roster. He’ll split reps 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 out there first,” Franklin said during a news conference in early February. “Based on how the season ended and Drew’s role last year, then that would be him. But we’re going to need both of those guys — specifically Pribula and Allar, it’s too early to speak on Smolik — but we’re going to need both of those guys not only competing, but also taking on a significant leadership role. No one cares that they’re young. They’re in that position, and a big part of that position is leadership. I thought Sean did a great job with that.”
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A new alpha at cornerback
What a luxury it must have been for Diaz to inherit a secondary so rich with talent last season. Diaz arrived at Penn State following three seasons as head coach at Miami, and the new coordinator propelled the Nittany Lions toward the top of college football in a slew 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 over 50 yards allowed (one).
One of the more critical cogs in Diaz’s machine was cornerback Joey Porter Jr., whose father, Joey Porter Sr., was a longtime edge rusher for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a redshirt junior, Porter blossomed into one of the better corners in college football before battling injuries late in the season. Opposing quarterbacks threw in Porter’s direction just 30 times in 275 coverage snaps for a 50% completion rate and 143 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the third-lowest total in the country among corners with comparable playing time. He did not allow a touchdown.
Porter earned second-team All-America honors from five different media outlets and was named first-team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media. He passed on his remaining eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, where he’s expected to be chosen in the first round.
With Porter gone, rising junior Kalen King should ascend to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. King played more snaps (557) than any Penn State corner last season and finished with the team’s highest coverage grade (90.6) on PFF. He allowed 27 catches on 59 targets for 343 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He limited opposing quarterbacks to a miserly NFL passer rating of 48.9 that 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 required — is a legitimate question ahead of the 2023 season. As the new top dog, King should have plenty of chances to answer it.
Overhauling the WR room
Franklin’s decision to fire wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield (2020-22) in January laid the groundwork for sweeping changes to a position group that said goodbye to leading targets Parker Washington (46 catches, 611 yards, 2 TD) and Mitchell Tinsley (51 catches, 577 yards, 5 TD). The only other wideouts to eclipse 90 receiving yards last season were KeAndre Lambert-Smith (24 catches, 389 yards, 4 TD) and Harrison Wallace III (19 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD), both of whom return in 2023.
To fill the coaching vacancy, Franklin plucked 40-year-old Marques Hagans from Virginia. Hagans spent a handful of seasons as a wideout for the St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins before diving into coaching at Virginia, his alma mater. He advanced from offensive graduate assistant to wide receivers coach and then, during his final year with the Cavaliers, was given the associate head coach title.
“I try to share as much as I can with you guys that I think is appropriate,” Franklin said when asked why he fired Stubblefield. “I don’t necessarily think that is appropriate in this setting. But I will tell you, you know, our excitement for Marques Hagans is really high.”
The Nittany Lions added depth to their receiving corps by signing two highly-rated players from the transfer portal. Ex-Florida State wideout Malik McClain (6-4, 200 pounds) caught 33 passes for 396 yards and five touchdowns during two seasons with the Seminoles. McClain was a four-star prospect rated among the top 300 players in the country coming out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, 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 be making 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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