Penn State football media day is this Saturday with the Nittany Lions now less than a month away from their opening game against Purdue in West Lafayette. With just a week of practice in the books there’s only so much James Franklin and his staff can know about their, especially with more substantial work still to be done in the weeks ahead. All the same, any chance to prod at Franklin about the state of his team and program is an opportunity, and here are five more questions and/or storylines to follow on Saturday.
So What’s New?:
Penn State has added new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to the fold following the departure of longtime defensive coordinator Brent Pry to Virginia Tech who has taken over the Hookies’ program as their new head coach. On paper, and by word of mouth, not a whole lot is different in Diaz’s defense compared to Pry’s, but what might the actual subtle differences be? It’s hard to find many faults in how the Nittany Lions have played on the defensive side of the ball the last several years so not a whole lot would need to change in the first place. The good news? Diaz seems to be focused on the basics, and if anything has lacked over the last few years it’s the occasional missed tackle. Penn State’s defense might have a few bumps in the road as new faces get worked into the picture, but don’t expect Diaz’s defense to be a big step backwards from Pry’s.
Old Guys Bigger Roles:
There has been a lot of talk about Penn State’s incoming freshman class and some underclassmen players looking to make a name for themselves, but what about some older guys who might finally get their chance to shine? Penn State’s linebacker room is in need of a few answers and redshirt senior Charlie Katshir is certainly a choice to offer that room some depth. Fellow redshirt senior Juice Scruggs ought to be a big piece of Penn State’s offensive front this year while junior defensive end Smith Vilbert ought to provide the Nittany Lions with another option in the defensive trenches. Junior Keaton Ellis should finally have his time to run at safety while Cornell transfer Hunter Nourzad enters the offensive line picture to provide more depth as well. Just a week into camp is rarely the time to make any declarative statements about how things are going, but forget about the new guys, who are some of the old faces James Franklin is expecting to see finally step up? There’s no time like the present to turn into the next Evan Schwan.
Freshman defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton comes to Penn State with as much hype as anyone in this freshman class and certainly with as much potential. At 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds Dennis-Sutton certainly fits the bill right out of the gates to be an immediate impact player. What has Franklin seen from him so far, even if it’s just the eye test? The good news for the freshman? He’ll be flanked by a host of more experienced talent which means he ought to have plenty of room to operate his first year on the job. Working with returning defensive end Adisa Isaac, Nick Tarburton and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher ought to be all the support Dennis-Sutton needs to ease into his first year at the Division I level.
Spice Of Life:
Quarterback Sean Clifford has been – as you may have noticed – around the program for a long time. Over that span he has seen the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back seasons just once [that would be right now]. So nobody would accuse Clifford of having a simple career at Penn State, nothing about being a starter for multiple seasons is easy, let alone in the face of constant change. That being said, how does Clifford, the offense and the general vibe of the entire team, find a little spice in the latest iteration of the same sorts of things. That’s not a knock on Clifford so much as it is the observation that change is often the spark that can reinvigorate a program. Unless Clifford makes big strides in his final year at the helm there shouldn’t be too much of a shock in the good and the bad he and his offense brings to the table. So how does Franklin battle any early pangs players or coaches might feel about more of the same? Presuming that 2022 does in fact bring more of the same. And it very well might not.
The Big Picture:
With the ever changing Name Image and Likeness landscape the hierarchy of college athletics is in constant flux as programs figure out the best way to attract talent and maximum student-athlete opportunities. Penn State appears – it would seem – to still be behind in this race. That’s not exactly a problem unique to Penn State, but the answers to how Penn State changes that trend is still very much up for debate. So what does Franklin think Penn State – and more importantly the money in Penn State’s orbit – need to do to get the program and athletic department up to speed? This is broad, but so too are the answers.