2019 Preview: Can an Inexperienced Penn State Offense Find Its Footing?
Our college football 2019 season preview issue is here, which means we're checking in with all 25 teams from SI's official preseason Top 25 ranking. What do you need to know about each of this year's top contenders, from top-ranked Alabama down to Stanford? We'll be rolling out scouting reports for each team over the next two weeks, all of which are being collected here. Next up, it's No. 16 Penn State.
THE BIG STORY
For the first time since 2016, Penn State will have a new quarterback. Trace McSorley's backup for three seasons—and his heir apparent—Tommy Stevens made the stunning decision to transfer to Mississippi State this spring. That means that the Nittany Lions will look to Sean Clifford, a redshirt sophomore who has attempted just seven collegiate passes. He won't be the only new face who is playing a big role. Penn State had five starters—including its leading rusher, Miles Sanders—leave early for the NFL, and 11 other players entered the transfer portal.
Penn State's defense led the FBS in sacks a year ago, averaging 3.6 per game, and much of the talent that generated that pressure is back, led by end-tackle duo Yetur Gross-Matos and Robert Windsor, who combined for 31 tackles for a loss and 151/2 sacks in 2018.
Clifford's inexperience is even more concerning given the youth that will surround him. With Sanders and McSorley gone, no one on the team has rushed for more than 257 yards in a season. With a thin receiving corps, Clifford will have to lean on redshirt sophomore K.J. Hamler, who led the team with 42 receptions last season. Will these Lions have enough to roar?
Linebacker Micah Parsons, a five-star recruit back in 2017, will slide into the starting lineup this fall, and considering the production he generated in a backup role, the move could push Penn State's defense from good—the Lions ranked 23rd last season—to great. In '18, as a true freshman, the 6'3", 245-pounder racked up 83 tackles, becoming the first freshman to ever lead the Nittany Lions in that category. After starting just one game last season, Parsons is certain to be on the field for a larger portion of the Nittany Lions' defensive snaps this year. Starting alongside him will be fifth-year player Jan Johnson (72 tackles in '18) and Cameron Brown (63).
OVER OR UNDER?
Under 8.5 wins. The inexperienced offense can try to find its footing with a relatively easy nonconference slate, but Penn State will struggle in conference games, with road games at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Last season, Penn State took a step back after losing Saquon Barkley. To avoid a similar fate in 2019 after McSorley's departure, coach James Franklin will lean on his 13th-ranked recruiting class.