With Little To Lose, It’s Time For Penn State Football To Experiment
To say the least, Penn State football has had a slow start to the 2020 season, starting 0-3 for the first time since 2001. With an even weaker recruiting class coming in 2021, the future is starting to look bleak in Happy Valley.
“Rebuilding years” are common for any sports team. It is a time where a team values evaluating talent for the future over current results. Due to the current state of the program, Penn State should flip the switch and start valuing the future over this year’s season.
Let’s look at a list of players and positions James Franklin should consider switching in at times for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Quarterback — Will Levis, Ta’Quan Roberson, Micah Bowens
During the first two games of the season, Sean Clifford played well but not great. It was reasonable to blame the systematic flaws in the offensive system rather than his play despite some shaky decision making. This past weekend was a different story.
Clifford went 27/57 for 340 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. If you watched the game, you knew that some of those statistical categories were boosted by some garbage time offensive production. Throughout the game, Clifford held onto the ball too long in the pocket, was indecisive in crucial moments, and missed wide-open receivers at an alarming rate.
Clifford’s play has warranted questions about the quarterback position for the Nittany Lions. If there’s any good time to try and answer that question, it’s now.
Will Levis is a known quantity despite not much playing experience. He’s a big-body, hard-nosed running quarterback who struggles to throw the ball. Last season, Levis played meaningful snaps versus Ohio State after Clifford went down with an injury. He also started the last game of the regular season versus Rutgers, where he led the team to a win despite throwing for only 81 yards.
With the number of times offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has run the quarterback this season, Levis may fit that role better than Clifford. His passing ability remains the big question mark and may make the Nittany Lions more one dimensional on offense.
The more enticing options are either Ta’Quan Roberson or Micah Bowens. Neither has played meaningful snaps, if any at the college level. The risk is there with throwing either of these young guys directly into the fire is Big Ten play. If either of the youngsters prove to be promising while playing meaningful snaps this year, it can rejuvenate the conversation around the future of the quarterback position for the Nittany Lions.
Sticking with Clifford may be the safe option, despite his poor play at times this season. Levis, Roberson, or Bowens may not be the answer, but it’s impossible to know if you don’t try.
Tight End — Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson, Tyler Warren
Unlike the quarterback position, this is only a suggestion due to the circumstances. Pat Freirmuth is still Pat Freiermuth. The fact of the matter is he will be declaring for the NFL draft after this season, leaving Tyler Bowen and the Aces without their leader. However, Freiermuth said during media availability on Tuesday that opting out this season isn’t even a consideration.
Despite his commitment to the program, this is a chance to phase out Freiermuth and give more chances to younger guys. There is no need to bench him, but it may be wise to give some more guys looks.
Brenton Strange is the name that stands out because he’s played the most snaps out of any other tight end. Strange had two catches last week for 22 yards. He hasn’t been a standout, but the expectations shouldn’t be through the roof for a freshman.
Other players that stick out are true freshmen Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren. Both were highly recruited players out of high school that could benefit from some serious game time during their true freshmen campaigns.
Friermuth is arguably the best tight end in school history and fans should cherish every moment they have left with him. With that being said, reducing his snaps in favor of some younger players will benefit those players and the team in the longer term.
Cornerback — Keaton Ellis, Marquis Wilson, Trent Gordon
Joey Porter Jr. shockingly won a starting corner position entering the season. He has struggled at times, along with senior corner Tariq Castro-Fields and anyone else that has played on the back end.
Looking back at last season, the Nittany Lions put a lot of faith in a relatively young cornerback core with players like Keaton Ellis, Marquis Wilson, and Trent Gordon. They struggled during stretches of 2019, but that group came together towards the end of the season and really improved over the course of the year.
All three of these players have been relegated down the depth chart, with Ellis appearing in just one game on defense so far this season. Penn State invested time and energy into these players last season and haven’t done much with them this season at all.
Should they start? Joey Porter Jr. and Tariq Castro-Field haven’t done much to truly lock down their starting spots. There should be more rotation on the back end, and letting players like Ellis, Wilson, and Gordon continue on the developmental path set out for them last year may yield the benefits the program hoped would come.
The time is now to look towards the future of the program. An 0-3 start with a weaker 2021 recruiting class coming in doesn’t emanate confidence onto the program and fanbase. Evaluating talent further down the depth chart now will improve the program in the future.
Will Franklin decide to make some changes? The next test for Penn State comes on Saturday when the Nittany Lions face Nebraska. Kickoff is slated for noon and will be televised nationally on FS1.
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