Penn State Football’s Offense Vows To Be One Of The Fastest In Recent Program History
When you think of Big Ten football, terms like “explosive” and “fast-paced” may not be the first thing that cross your mind.
Sure, the conference has had its fair share of electrifying, thrilling games — think the 2016 Big Ten title game and last season’s Michigan-Ohio State contest — but the conference has become synonymous for defensive, sometimes sloppy football. Even with a talent like Trace McSorley leading the offense, James Franklin’s team has fallen into some of the sloppier games the conference is notorious for — particularly against Wisconsin and Michigan State in 2018.
This year’s young, but talented cast of Nittany Lions has vowed to play with the pace and energy that might’ve been missing at times last season.
“You’re going to see one of the quickest, fastest Penn State football offenses that you’ve seen in a long time,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford said last Friday. “In the spring, we were very explosive, but we left a lot on the table. Our offense is really hungry to prove that we can be a 400, 500, 600-yard offense consistently.”
Vowing to become one of the quickest, fastest offenses in recent program history is a bold claim, especially considering some of the units predecessors are the likes of McSorley, Saquon Barkley, and Mike Gesicki. McSorley’s dual-threat play, Barkley’s sheer ridiculousness, and Gesicki’s routine circus catches seem like a tough act to top.
Why can’t this year’s unit be the one to do it?
The success of any offense starts and ends with its quarterback, and Clifford is expected by many to begin the 2019 season at the helm of Penn State’s unit. Clifford was considered a pro-style quarterback as a recruit, and he even admitted to being “mostly just a passer” when he arrived in Happy Valley.
That said, Penn State fans are going to see a transformed Sean Clifford this season.
“I’m about done with Sean,” strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt said. “He benches 350. He just got 16 [reps] on 225 [pounds during Lift for Life] as a sophomore quarterback, so he’s got a really good upper body foundation. A lot of it is just his work ethic — he trains incredibly hard.”
Clifford has clearly gotten stronger and, therefore, more durable and capable of taking some of the punishment that comes with being a dual-threat quarterback. The former four-star recruit’s 40-yard dash time has also improved, and all these changes have caused a complete transformation in his style of play.
“I think I’ve added a whole new dual-threat type to my skill level,” Clifford said. “I’m really excited to just show it off, to be honest with you. This is the most confident and ready I’ve ever been in my life.”
Meanwhile, running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider’s desire to take a by-committee approach at his position this year is very well-documented. Players like Miles Sanders and Saquon Barkley were excellent, but they naturally dealt with the effects of fatigue and wear-and-tear because of the sheer volume of snaps they took.
As the most experienced and talented running backs on the team, Ricky Slade and Journey Brown are expected to split most of the snaps, but don’t be surprised to see early enrollee Noah Cain and fellow freshman Devyn Ford get a long look during game action throughout 2019.
Using this new system will limit the amount of punishment taken by each Nittany Lion running back, but it’ll also help the offense’s need for speed — particularly in late-game situations.
“The running back by committee approach is a great idea. We’re going to have a fresh running back in there all the time,” Slade said. “If it’s the fourth quarter or overtime, we’re never going to have a worn-down running back in the game. I really like that change.”
Constantly having a fresh player on the field at running back will also make Clifford’s life much easier. The quarterback described the running backs as “just a bunch of dogs” and said opposing defenses worrying about dealing with multiple players at the same position will open up opportunities for him to showcase his abilities.
Over the past few years, part of what’s made Penn State one of the most exciting teams to watch in college football has been the passing game. The deep balls to receiving options like Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton, and DeAndre Thompkins were always thrilling, but the Nittany Lions got away from that a bit last year.
That may have come down to subpar performances from wide receivers like Thompkins, Brandon Polk, and Juwan Johnson or an occasional lack of confidence from the offense as a whole. However, those struggles should be a thing of the past thanks to the re-invigoration of youth coming to the passing game this season.
Redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler is the only returning starter at the position, and everyone at Penn State knows what he’s capable of. Hamler’s straight-line speed and general quickness helped him lead the team in receptions (42) and receiving yards (754), and he’ll be a force to be reckoned with if he can get the ball in his hands consistently.
Guys like Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter might be wild cards at wide receiver because of their lack of experience at the college level, but they undoubtedly have the talent to become stars sooner rather than later. Both were highly-rated recruits coming out of high school and impressed in somewhat lesser roles as true freshmen in 2018.
Elsewhere, tight end hasn’t been a problem for the Nittany Lion offense in recent seasons thanks to a player like Gesicki. Rising sophomore Pat Freiermuth should retain the place in the starting lineup he earned with a surge of strong performances in 2018, and he thinks the offense will take some observers by surprise this year.
“You guys are going to be shocked and surprised at how fast and explosive we’re going to be,” Freiermuth said. “That’s kind of [strength coach Dwight Galt’s] area — he kind of tells us where we need to be speed-wise. I think we’re a faster team now than we were last year.”
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Penn State ranked just outside the top 100 in this year’s Forbes’ list of the top colleges in the United States.
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