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How Did Penn State Football Get Here?

Three games and three losses later, Penn State football is in a historically bad place.

Following multiple seasons of sustained success in the James Franklin era, the Nittany Lions have hit their first major setback. The team appears to be bad, or at least playing poorly. After being embarrassed by Maryland, it’s clear what type of team Penn State is, and the players know it.

“It’s very apparent what kind of football team we are,” quarterback Sean Clifford said. “We’re an 0-3, poor-performing football team right now, and we need to change that.”

So after finishing 11-2 with a Cotton Bowl victory to boot last year, how did the Nittany Lions get into this situation? What exactly changed during the offseason, and how did we get here?

Coaching Changes

Penn State made quite a few coaching changes over the spring and summer, most of which have so far yielded negative results. Considering that the team has regressed in nearly every aspect of its game, it’s clear that a learning curve under new coaches may be at play.

Kirk Ciarrocca was one of the most notable changes of the offseason, and one many were excited about. Most folks regarded Ciarrocca’s hiring as offensive coordinator as an upgrade over the offense Ricky Rahne ran in the past, but that’s yet to manifest itself. Sean Clifford has shown signs of regression and play design has been very predictable.

The departure of run game coordinator and defensive line coach Sean Spencer is proving to be a big loss for Penn State as well. Spencer’s “Wild Dogs” led the Nittany Lions to many successful defensive seasons, and his unmatched energy is sorely missed in a now-depleted locker room. As an associate head coach, it’s clear Spencer played an important role.

Taylor Stubblefield, Penn State’s new wide receivers coach, perhaps is one of the only new hires to have made a clear positive impact so far. It’s always hard to tell what sort of impact a coach may be having, but Jahan Dotson is having a breakout year, and freshman wide receivers are already earning starting roles.

Newly minted offensive line coach Phil Trautwein seems to be struggling early on as well, as Sean Clifford has dealt with an onslaught of pass rushers all season. Perhaps the line just needs to adjust to a new coach and scheme, but it has definitely taken a step backward.

Graduating Seniors, Transfers, Draftees

Penn State returned 17 starters this year — 10 on offense, four on defense, and three on special teams. Returning just four out of 11 defensive starters is decidedly not great for a defense that has struggled the last two games. Franklin knew coming into the season he had a younger squad on his hands.

“I don’t think we ever had a veteran team. We only had eight scholarship seniors returning,” Franklin explained during a weekly press conference. “But we were talented and explosive and had a bunch of guys coming back who played significant roles. That changed quickly [due to injuries].”

Guys like Yetur Gross-Matos and Cam Brown have been missed on Penn State’s defense. The Nittany Lions’ did return 20 defensive lettermen — compared to just 16 on offense — but the leadership from older star players has been missed.

Returning 10 starters on offense definitely seems like a good thing, but Penn State has yet to show the same returns. KJ Hamler’s loss is certainly notable, but Jahan Dotson has quickly stepped up to take his spot as “the guy” in the receiving room. The issues on offense go beyond just roster makeup and talent.

The transfer of five-star wideout Justin Shorter is also notable, but younger players have already filled in the depth chart. Nonetheless, his experience is missed.

Ricky Slade is another guy Penn State is missing this year. Although he was never that productive here, his raw talent and experience are missed in a depleted running back room.

Injuries, Opt-Outs

Injuries have been the name of the game for Penn State’s offense. Losing your No. 1 running back in Journey Brown is one thing, but losing his backup in Noah Cain is devastating. The entire offense has been hurt by the inability to get the run game going in Brown and Cain’s absences.

“With Kirk and what I know he wants to do, it starts with the run game,” Franklin said Tuesday. “Once you get that going, then the RPO and the play-action pass all come off of that.

“When you lose Journey Brown before the season starts…and then the first drive of the opening game we lose Noah Cain. For me to say that doesn’t have a factor in this, it does.”

When opponents don’t respect Penn State’s run game, the offense becomes too predictable. Franklin said they haven’t yet changed their approach, but he knows the running game is key to jumpstarting a dead offense.

Wideout Cam Sullivan-Brown has also been unavailable so far this season. Franklin hasn’t specified if it’s been due to injury, but one could conclude his health has played a factor in his absences from games. The depth, experience, and dependability he would provide on the field are missed.

And how could you forget about Micah Parsons? Parsons’ opt-out was one of the biggest stories coming into this season. As undoubtedly the defense’s best player, his disruptive playstyle and game-changing ability is missed on Penn State’s front seven.

No, he’s not the reason for an 0-3 start by any stretch of the imagination, but a Micah Parsons-less Penn State defense just doesn’t look the same.

Odd Offseason

Such a strange offseason and odd world that we live in has played a factor in the demise of Penn State as well. After such a high turnover of coaches and players, missing extra practice time due to the pandemic hurts. With a new scheme and plenty of new position coaches, the Nittany Lions’ would have liked to get more reps in.

The team perhaps hasn’t been able to fully bond or come together yet, either. Dotson hinted after the Maryland game that there were some issues going on in the locker room.

“We’re not as one right now, we’re not a unit right now,” he said. “There’s distractions that we shouldn’t be focused on right now. We’ve got to be focused on getting in the win column, nothing else.”

Whether it be the election, coronavirus, racial injustice, or another issue pressing all sorts of people around the country, the team just isn’t focused right now. Having a whirlwind of an offseason must have contributed to this slow start and lack of unity.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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