Projecting Penn State Football’s 2019 Starting Lineup: Quarterback & Running Back
Penn State football will return to Beaver Stadium in less than a month, and the team’s training camp practices are already well underway.
Despite losing plenty of talent, the Nittany Lions’ offensive unit is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in the country. With top talent returning at wide receiver, tight end, and on the offensive line, it’s hard to imagine Ricky Rahne’s group struggling to put points on the board this season.
Even with all of this preseason hype, Penn State fans are well aware that the offense is extremely young, especially at the quarterback and running back positions. With three-year starter Trace McSorley and veteran ball carrier Miles Sanders both off to the NFL, Penn State’s backfield will need to rely on plenty of fresh faces in 2019.
With this in mind, we decided to take a look at how two of Penn State’s most important (and youngest) position groups are shaping up as the season fast approaches.
Starter: Sean Clifford
Backup: Will Levis
Reserves: Michael Johnson Jr., Ta’Quan Roberson, and Michael Shuster
Although James Franklin hasn’t confirmed it yet, Sean Clifford will likely start
under behind center for the Nittany Lions in 2019. The redshirt sophomore earned some valuable experience in 2018 by completing five of seven pass attempts for 195 yards and two touchdowns in four appearances. He went 11-for-19 with 118 yards and a touchdown in his last outing at Beaver Stadium, which was the 2019 Blue-White game.
After the departure of probable starter Tommy Stevens to Mississippi State this past May, Clifford has emerged as a leader for Penn State. The young gunslinger has the most experience out of anyone in the competition for starter, as he had two full seasons to learn and develop under Trace McSorley.
Clifford was recruited as a four-star pro style quarterback, but he’s worked towards adding a different element to his game throughout the summer. Don’t be surprised to see the redshirt sophomore venture out of the pocket and use his legs to pick up yards quite a bit if he wins the starting job.
“I’ve worked on running. It’s definitely been one of my keys in the weight room,” Clifford said. “Anything that I can do to get faster, get stronger, so that way I can make moves on guys that I couldn’t before.”
The idea of a pro style quarterback scrambling and using his legs might not sound great on paper, but make no mistake: Clifford has evolved into almost a completely different player this offseason. Strength & conditioning coach Dwight Galt said Clifford’s 40-yard dash time is down and his upper body strength has greatly improved, which will help him be able to take some of the punishment that comes with scrambling out of the pocket.
Meanwhile, Will Levis still brings plenty of competition to the table despite his lack of in-game experience. His size (6’3″, 229 pounds) and athleticism speaks for itself. The Connecticut native played well in the 2019 Blue-White game, and he used his big arm to make the play of the day, which was a 59-yard touchdown toss to Dan Chisena.
The sophomore’s size clearly makes him a tough guy to bring down. Levis doesn’t have outstanding mobility yet, so him playing a Tommy Stevens-style role in Penn State’s offense might not be feasible right now. However, it’s an interesting idea to ponder if he can get quicker and faster.
As for Ta’Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr., the two freshmen are battling for a reserve position on the depth chart. Franklin said he expects at least one of them to stand out and prepare as if they’re the starter every week, and whoever does that will likely take on the third-string role behind Clifford and Levis.
Michael Shuster may not figure into the equation for snaps as much, but James Franklin made sure to give him a shout-out because of his leadership abilities at Penn State’s media day over the weekend.
“He’s been fantastic,” Franklin said. “He’s like having another coach. He’s great with the young guys, and he’s great when it comes to game-planning. He’s a culture driver.”
Starter: Ricky Slade
Backups: Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford
The fact that Ricky Slade is listed as our projected starter at running back ahead of Journey Brown honestly doesn’t mean all that much. Position coach Ja’Juan Seider has been consistent in wanting to bring a by-committee approach to the position all offseason, so both players will definitely get their fair share of touches if everything goes to plan.
Slade has the most in-game experience out of anyone in that group. He finished last season with six touchdowns and 257 rushing yards on 45 carries, including a 61-yard touchdown against Illinois. Staying healthy will be Slade’s top priority this season after he missed a handful of games due to injury in 2018, and the fact that his weight is up to 198 pounds now may help him do that.
Meanwhile, Brown didn’t see the field as much in 2018. He registered just eight carries during his redshirt freshman season compared to Slade’s 45, but he should certainly not be forgotten in Penn State’s backfield.
The redshirt sophomore was a track star in high school and will be a valuable speedy option to pair with Slade. Brown may have relied on his athletic ability a bit too much in 2018, but he’s rounded out his game and increased his football IQ quite a bit this offseason.
“When I got here, [Brown] was a track kid playing football. The game hadn’t slowed down to him — he was just a fast kid getting away with it,” Seider said earlier this summer. “Making him understand how defenses play against us and how we [have to] attack defenses, I think now he’s maturing, trying to take that next step, it’s what you like to see out of a redshirt sophomore going into his third year.”
While Brown and Slade will be the leaders to this running back-by-committee approach, freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford are both poised to add value to Penn State’s offense in 2019.
Cain got a head-start over Ford by enrolling early. He stole the show at the Blue-White game with 45 rushing yards and two scores on 12 carries. He was a nationally sought-after recruit coming out of high school as the sixth-best running back in his recruiting class.
Ford was also a highly-touted prospect coming out of high school, and he was actually ranked one spot above Cain among the best running backs in the nation. Despite that, Cain will likely start the season ahead of him on the depth chart solely because of his experience and performance during spring practice.
With Ford and Cain sitting at the back end of this running back room, Penn State could have one of the top groups of ball-carriers in the Big Ten in the 2019 season. It’ll be an adjustment from the days of Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders doing nearly everything in the run game, but having a multi-faceted rushing attack could prove to be beneficial in the long run.
“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.”
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