Penn State opens fall camp today just 29 days from the start of the 2019 season. Fourteen starters return from a squad that went 9-4 and played in the Citrus Bowl last season.
While this year’s team is one of James Franklin’s least experienced in terms of starts, the sixth-year Penn State coach said it was “probably the fastest team that I’ve been a part of in probably my nine years as a head football coach.”
Penn State netted two new assistant coaches this offseason in passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach Gerad Parker and special teams coordinator/defensive assistant Joe Lorig.
Penn State senior punter and school punting average leader Blake Gillikin said Lorig wasted little time reaching out to him for an overview of Penn State’s special teams unit.
“He came straight in and asked me to come meet with him,” Gillikin said. “I sat down with him for probably 45 minutes to an hour and talked to him about the landscape of the team, guys he’d be working with. Not just specialists, but other guys — obviously he has to run coverage units, return units and stuff like that. So I really developed a really good relationship with him early on.”
Defensive talent abounds
Penn State returns a pair of senior linebackers in Cam Brown and Jan Johnson. The duo combined for 25 starts and 135 total tackles last season. Sophomore Micah Parsons paced the defense with 83 tackles last year despite not registering any starts.
Junior defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos headlines the defensive line and has received nods on several preseason watch lists. Gross-Matos has been suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules, but Franklin said he and running back Journey Brown were expected to return to team activities Thursday.
Gross-Matos tallied 54 tackles, eight sacks and forced two fumbles as a sophomore.
“On defense, at defensive end, I think we have a chance to be as good as anywhere in the country,” Franklin said.
Senior defensive tackle Robert Windsor returns a season after being picked a second team All-Big Ten selection by The Associated Press. Senior John Reid (cornerback), junior Tariq Castro-Field (cornerback) and senior Garrett Taylor (safety) will bolster the Penn State’s
secondary. Reid started 11 games last season in his return from an injury that sidelined him in 2017. Reid posted two interceptions and 24 tackles last year.
“(We) went into spring ball with question marks at (defensive) tackle; I think we’re probably a little bit further ahead there than we thought we were,” Franklin said. “Same thing at the safety position. And then we feel like we’ve got a chance to be really talented at linebacker and corner.”
Penn State will start its first quarterback not named Trace McSorley since 2016.
Redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford is the presumed starter, but Franklin said he or redshirt freshman Will Levis will have to earn the starting job through their performances during fall camp.
“We’ve got two, what we would consider veterans in Sean Clifford and Mr. Levis, that are going to have a great competition this camp, and have really had that all summer, including spring ball,” Franklin said. “And then we’ve got two freshmen that are also going to have an opportunity to compete, as well, and we’ll make the decision when the decision has been made, when it’s obvious to everybody who our starting quarterback is going to be.”
Running back Miles Sanders has departed for the NFL, which opens up several possibilities for Penn State’s backfield. Sophomore Ricky Slade accumulated a group-best 45 carries for 262 yards rushing and six touchdowns last year.
“You look at us at the running back position over the last number of years, we’ve been able to produce at a high level at that position,” Franklin said. “We want to continue to do that.”
Journey Brown, a redshirt sophomore, emerged as an early candidate for an increased role of carries, and despite his suspension, Franklin remained optimistic about Brown’s potential.
“He’s one of those guys where it would not surprise me if he has a breakout year,” Franklin said. “He’s got an unbelievable body. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s explosive. The game is coming more natural to him. He’s starting to play with the speed and athleticism he has.”
Penn State will also debut freshmen running backs Noah Cain and Devyn Ford this season.
Redshirt juniors Michal Menet and Will Fries, and senior Steven Gonzalez — all returning starters — will anchor the offensive line.
Sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth should again prove to be an invaluable asset to whomever emerges as starting quarterback. Freiermuth caught an FBS second-best and a Big Ten-leading eight touchdowns in nine starts last year.
Redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler led Penn State in yards receiving with 754 — five touchdowns — and is considered one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic threats.
The offseason transfer of Juwan Johnson means increased opportunities for sophomore Jahan Dotson and redshirt freshman Justin Shorter.
“Obviously wide receiver, we expect to take a step this year at the wide receiver position, Franklin said. “(We) gained a lot of experience last year at the tight end position.”
Penn State opens its 2019 season on Aug. 31 against Idaho.