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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2020 Starting Lineup: Quarterback & Running Back

It’s been a long offseason, but Penn State football is finally kicking off this month, folks.

The Nittany Lions have plenty of talent returning on the offensive side of the ball. While there will be some holes to fill at wide receiver, expectations couldn’t be higher for Penn State’s backfield. First-year offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca will have some fantastic rushers to work with in Journey Brown and Noah Cain, while Sean Clifford has plenty of experience under behind center.

With some of those names in mind, we decided to take a look at how those two position groups will look entering Penn State’s delayed 2020 campaign.


  • Starter: Sean Clifford
  • Backup: Will Levis
  • Reserves: Ta’Quan Roberson, Micah Bowens, Mason Stahl

Second-year starter Sean Clifford will need to adjust to new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, but the former Minnesota coach has hardly struggled coaching quarterbacks. He helped Tanner Morgan throw for 30 touchdowns last year with the Golden Gophers, so fans can hope Ciarrocca will help Clifford improve on a solid 23-touchdown season in 2019.

As a redshirt junior, Clifford will embark on his fourth season in Happy Valley. The clear leader of the quarterback room threw for 2,654 yards in 2019 and ran for five scores, so his dual-threat ability could make for a successful second year as Penn State’s starter.

Will Levis will serve as a capable back up to Clifford this season. While he didn’t do a ton with his arm in 2019, the Connecticut native managed 213 yards on the ground and three scores last year, including a clutch touchdown in a comeback effort against Ohio State.

Levis won’t see a ton of time at a typical quarterback position barring an injury to Clifford, but his athleticism could prove to be useful in other ways. The redshirt sophomore said at his media day press conference that he hasn’t heard anything about offensive packages where he’s on the field as a wide receiver or running back but is open to anything.

With Michael Johnson Jr.’s decision to enter the transfer portal this past June, Ta’Quan Roberson is the team’s third-string quarterback. He saw a few snaps against Rutgers this past fall and isn’t expected to play any role at quarterback just yet.

True freshman Micah Bowens and Mason Stahl round out the group. Bowens, a native of Las Vegas, is considered to have been the third-best player from Nevada, and the 16th-best dual-threat quarterback in the country. Stahl, on the other hand, hails from Pittsburgh and walked on ran on to the Nittany Lions’ squad this fall.

Running Back

  • Starters: Journey Brown, Noah Cain
  • Back ups: Devyn Ford, Caziah Holmes, Keyvone Lee
  • Reserves: Tank Smith, Joseph Bruno

Journey Brown will lead this group, but Noah Cain had too good of a freshman season to not list as a starter as well. The pair will likely be a dominant one-two punch throughout this 2020 campaign.

Brown capped off last season with a bang, rushing for 202 yards and two scores against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl Classic. He finished the season just shy of 900 yards rushing and clearly has some high expectations entering his redshirt junior year.

Cain, on the other hand, was a standout as a freshman in 2019 and will be a valuable counter to Brown. The Baton Rouge native set a school freshman record with eight rushing touchdowns last fall and put up 443 rushing yards on the season.

Outside that pair, though, Devyn Ford could add value to the backfield. While he didn’t have the same impressive freshman production as Cain, Ford totaled 294 rushing yards and three scores in 2019.

Freshmen Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee will also likely be key pieces to the group’s depth. Both are four-star recruits coming out of Florida, and Cain spoke highly of both of them at his media day press conference. Unfortunately for the pair of freshman, though, this all-Big Ten schedule will make it tougher for rotational players to get snaps that they otherwise would in early-season contests.

Joseph Bruno and Tank Smith are the two reserves of this position group. Bruno committed to Penn State this past February as a preferred walk-on, while Smith transferred from Saint Francis and is listed as a redshirt freshman. The pair may be behind a few names on the depth chart, but Smith is the only member of the group who made Penn State football’s all-name team.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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