STATE COLLEGE — James Franklin’s seventh year at Penn State assuredly will be unlike any other during his 10 years as a Division I head coach.
Amid a global health pandemic and with the absence of a spring season, the Nittany Lions will forge ahead with a nine-game, conference-only schedule that begins at Indiana on Saturday.
Penn State held firm to its No. 9 ranking in the latest AP Top 25 poll released last week, and while the dynamics of the upcoming season are unmatched, Franklin said the preparation is akin to seasons past.
“I think it’s really very similar, to be honest with you,” Franklin said. “We’ve gotten into a good routine now. In some ways, you could make the argument (that) it’s been better. We’ve had a lot of meeting time, and we’ve had a lot of individual (meetings), probably more so than we normally would have in a normal training camp.”
Nine starters return on offense from last year’s 11-2, Cotton Bowl-winning squad, headlined by junior tight end Pat Freiermuth (507 yards and eleven touchdowns) and a trio of running backs led by Journey Brown (890 yards and 12 touchdowns).
Penn State’s receiving corps will have to adjust to being without KJ Hamler, who led the group the past two seasons in yards receiving. Junior Jahan Dotson (488 yards and five touchdowns) is expected to fill the void. He’ll be assisted by redshirt junior Cam Sullivan-Brown (56 yards) and redshirt sophomore Daniel George (100 yards).
The Nittany Lions’ offense ended 2019 ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring offense behind 35.8 points per game. The unit ranked sixth in the conference in total offense (411.9 yards per game).
The 2020 season marks Year Two for redshirt junior Sean Clifford (2,654 yards, 23 touchdowns, seven interceptions).
Penn State returns four starters from the offensive line in fifth-year senior center Michal Menet, redshirt sophomore left tackle Rasheed Walker, redshirt junior left guard Mike Miranda and senior right tackle Will Fries.
“I think one of the most exciting parts of our team is the experience and the talent of our offensive line,” Clifford said. “I’m not going to speak on offensive lines in the past, but the one that we have currently, I think is one of the best in the country.”
Penn State’s defense was dealt a blow in August when linebacker Micah Parsons announced he would opt out of the upcoming season, and focus on the 2021 NFL draft, because of coronavirus concerns. Junior Jesse Luketa (24 tackles, four pass breakups) will inherit Parsons’ position.
“I’ve always been someone who (defensive coordinator Brent) Pry has been able to depend upon,” Luketa said. “I’ve gone from being one of the youngest guys in the room to being one of the oldest guys in the room, just like that.”
In addition to losing Parsons, linebackers Cam Brown and Jan Johnson departed the program following their senior seasons. Sophomore Brandon Smith, redshirt junior Ellis Brooks and redshirt freshman Lance Dixon will fill their absence.
“I think they’re both physical guys,” Penn State senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said of Smith and Dixon. “Speed is the thing that comes to my mind. They’re both big guys, but they’re both running well – 4.5s, 4.4s. They fly to the ball.”
Castro-Fields assumes the position of dean of Penn State’s secondary. Castro-Fields had a strong start to the 2019 season before injuries disrupted his flow. Penn State’s secondary last year yielded 221.3 yards passing per game, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten.
Sophomore Keaton Ellis emerged as a bright spot in the secondary last year. Ellis played in all 13 games and ended the season with 18 total tackles, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
“I think I’ve definitely improved a lot,” Ellis said. “Playing early, it forces you to mature faster. I believe I have more confidence. Obviously, experience is key, especially at this level. Having the experience and getting more comfortable with each and every snap, each and every play, each and every day.”
The Nittany Lions have perhaps one of the deepest defensive lines in the country. Led by redshirt senior Shaka Toney, redshirt defensive tackle Antonio Shelton and junior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, the unit paced the Big Ten in run defense last season (95 yards rushing per game).
Junior Jordan Stout will handle punting and kickoff duties, and junior Jake Pinegar will serve as the Nittany Lions’ kicker. Redshirt junior Chris Stoll will return as long snapper.
Penn State welcomes Ohio State to Beaver Stadium on Oct. 31 for its home opener, and will host Maryland (Nov. 7), Iowa (Nov. 21) and Michigan State (Dec. 12). The Nittany Lions travel to Indiana, Nebraska (Nov. 14), Michigan (Nov. 28) and Rutgers (Dec. 5).
A ninth game will be played on Dec. 19, which is championship weekend, against an undetermined opponent.