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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2021 Starting Lineup: Quarterback & Running Back

Believe it or not, we’re under a month away from the start of Penn State football’s 2021 season.

When the Nittany Lions make the trip to Wisconsin week one, they’ll carry a talented squad aiming to bounce back after a disappointing 4-5 record last season. We’ve made our projections for what most of the team will look come September 4, and it’s now time to finish off our predictions with the backfield.

With new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich in town, and the likes of Sean Clifford and Noah Cain leading the way, Penn State’s backfield could be set up for success in 2021.


  • Starter: Sean Clifford
  • Backup: Ta’Quan Roberson
  • Reserves: Christian Veilleux, Mason Stahl

Make no mistake about it, folks. Sean Clifford is Penn State’s QB1 and there’s really no doubt about it. Coming off an inconsistent 2020 campaign, Clifford is now paired with new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich. Clifford and Yurcich’s relationship, both on and off the field, will be crucial to Penn State’s success this season. Early indications show that the relationship is off to a red-hot start.

“He’s brought a lot of good out of me,” Clifford said after practice Wednesday. “Things I’ve never thought I could do. He’s given me a lot of opportunities and given me a lot of chances to prove to him that he can trust me and changing plays and making protection calls and putting us in the right play. Whatever it is, I feel like I’ve done that so far, and he’s been happy with how I’ve been progressing.”

While Clifford struggled at times in 2020, he showed in the final third of the season he’s capable of playing at a high level. Over the three-game span, he completed 68% of his passes, threw for 650 yards, scored six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing), and threw just one interception. The most important stat of all? Three wins, zero losses.

The redshirt senior enters the season as Penn State’s most experienced signal-caller and the clear-cut starter at the position.

The presumed backup behind Clifford is redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson. After attempting just one pass in his first two seasons with the Nittany Lions, Roberson now steps into the important role that is the backup quarterback, a role that Will Levis took on the previous two seasons.

Roberson said at the program’s media day that the biggest thing he’s improved on over the course of the last year is always being prepared and staying prepared, something he’ll need to do as the Nittany Lions’ QB2 this season.

Both Christian Veilleux and Mason Stahl aren’t likely to see any playing time this season, barring anything unexpected. Veilleux is a true freshman, while Stahl is a walk-on entering his redshirt freshman season.

Running Back

  • Starters: Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, John Lovett
  • Backups: Devyn Ford, Caziah Holmes
  • Reserve: Tank Smith

It’s possible running back is the most competitive position group on Penn State’s 2021 squad. The group is filled with talented runners who have had success at the collegiate level, which makes for quite the competition during training camp.

Both Franklin and Yurcich have said that the plan is to play three running backs during games. That means the team may have a problem, albeit a good problem, on its hands when it comes to playing time at the position.

“I think we have one of stronger running back rooms in the country,” Franklin said. “Ja’Juan’s [Seider] done a great job of coaching and developing and recruiting at that position. Plus, they’re really good guys. They work well together, they challenge each other. And we’re also big believers that we’re going to play three backs. The days of the featured backs in college football I think are gone. We want to play three backs. I think it’s hard to play four.”

However, Franklin went on to say it’s important to have four backs, though, when one of the top three inevitably gets dinged up.

Noah Cain appears to be the safest bet to earn significant playing time amongst the group. Cain, who burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2019 with 443 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, was slated to be the team’s starter last season before going down with a season-ending injury in the first game of the season.

Cain formed a formidable one-two punch with Journey Brown during the 2019 season.

Last year’s breakout star Keyvone Lee also figures to factor into the running back rotation this season. As just a true freshman, Lee was the team’s leading rusher to the tune of 438 yards. Lee punched the ball into the end zone four times and stepped up in a huge way amid the injury woes the team had.

The third spot is where it gets interesting, as there are three backs who could make a case for the role. John Lovett, Devyn Ford, and Caziah Holmes have all had success as college rushers.

Lovett, who came over from Baylor this offseason as a graduate transfer, is the most experienced of the trio, which give him the edge in our opinion. Lovett rushed for 1803 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry during his four-year career with Baylor. His consistency throughout his career makes him a welcomed addition to Ja’Juan Seider’s group.

Ford and Holmes provide the Nittany Lions with excellent depth at running back. Ford has totaled 568 rushing yards and six touchdowns in two seasons, while Holmes ran for 227 yards as a true freshman last season.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s possible both Ford and Holmes earn significant playing time this season, as a strong showing in camp could propel them toward the top of the depth chart.

Tank Smith, on the other hand, is entering his redshirt freshman season and has only had one carry in his career thus far. He’s the one back in the group that hasn’t had in-game reps, which puts him at a disadvantage in the competition.

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

Gabe is a senior majoring in journalism and is suddenly Onward State's managing editor. He grew up in Lindenhurst, New York, and has had the absolute misfortune of rooting for the Jets, Mets, and Knicks. If you want to see his bad sports takes, follow him on Twitter @gabeangieri and direct all hate mail and death threats to [email protected]

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