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Staff Picks: Penn State Football’s 2021 Breakout Player

Penn State football returns in just over a week, folks!

The Nittany Lions open up their season at noon on Saturday, September 4, with a trip to Madison to take on Wisconsin. James Franklin’s squad follows up the season opener with a home matchup against Ball State on September 11.

To bounce back from an inconsistent 4-5 season in 2020, Penn State will need contributions up and down the roster, including from some players who are yet to have their “breakout season.”

With that in mind, some of our staffers made their picks as to which players could be on the brink of a breakout year.

Michael Tauriello: PJ Mustipher

A defensive tackle isn’t bound to register eye-popping numbers, but I expect we could see something closer to that level this upcoming season. In 13 games over the 2019 season, PJ Mustipher registered 37 total tackles as well as a sack. His numbers from 2020 were quite similar — 35 tackles and one sack.

However, the catch is that he did it in four fewer games due to the pandemic-shortened season. If he had those four games back, his numbers would definitely be stronger than a year prior. I’ve got a feeling Mustipher’s on a strong upward trend and will close out his collegiate career on a high note.

Frankie Marzano: Brenton Strange

Penn State fans have been spoiled at the tight end position for the last five years with Mike Gesicki and Pat Freiermuth serving as some of the program’s best. Filling their shoes is not easy, but Brenton Strange is definitely up to the task.

The redshirt sophomore started last season behind Freiermuth but became TE1 after his injury. After replacing Freiermuth, Strange started five games and hauled in 17 catches with an average of 9.6 yards per catch. The West Virginia native is bringing a mix of experience and confidence after a solid finish to last season, and he will do a great job of filling the shoes of Gesicki and Freiermuth.

Connor Krause: John Lovett

It’s certainly a stretch to label a running back a breakout candidate in a position group crowded with blue-chip talent across the board, but John Lovett’s mesh of lateral quickness and breakaway speed is too special to ignore. 

During his four-year tenure at Baylor, Lovett rushed for 1,803 yards and 17 touchdowns while sporting a 5.1 yards-per-carry benchmark. Additionally, the New Jersey native rattled off nine carries over 25 yards in his first three years as a reserve.

After his first season as the marquee featured back in 2020, Lovett suffered a season-ending injury toward the latter half of his senior campaign that sidelined the emerging star for his final three contests. Now, with an entire offseason of rehab under his belt, the veteran should be ready to help catapult Mike Yurcich’s new-look offense from the get-go. 

Although Noah Cain will likely lead the Nittany Lions in carries by the season’s end, expect Lovett to be the most flashy running back on the roster with his ability to hit the big play, similar to how Stephfon Green complemented Evan Royster in Joe Paterno’s two-headed backfield over a decade ago.

Gabe Angieri: Theo Johnson

While Brenton Strange is slated to be the team’s starting tight end, don’t be surprised if sophomore Theo Johnson makes a significant impact on Mike Yurcich’s offense this year. Johnson appeared in seven games last year in what was his true freshman season, even earning a start in one of them.

His four catches for 56 yards last season aren’t anything eye-opening, but with a year of college experience under his belt, the former four-star recruit could break out and establish himself as the next great tight end at Penn State.

With how talented both Strange and Johnson are, it would hardly be a surprise to see both the tight ends earn major roles in the offense this upcoming season.

Will Pegler: Ji’Ayir Brown

James Franklin has noted throughout this offseason that Ji’Ayir “Tiig” Brown has made noise at the safety position across Jaquan Brisker. He hasn’t been named a starter quite yet, but don’t be surprised if he’s a constant on defense this season.

A fellow Lackawanna College transfer, Brown hasn’t made the same impact as Brisker quite yet. However, he appeared in nine games last season on defense and special teams in his first season in Happy Valley. He was also a proven talent over the course of two seasons in Lackawanna, and his eight total interceptions are nothing to scoff at.

Considering how much chatter he’s gotten from his head coach and defensive coordinator Brent Pry throughout this offseason, expect Brown to add value early and often for Penn State’s defense.

Ryan Parsons: Nick Tarburton

From the beginning of winter workouts, Nick Tarburton’s name has been brought up over and over again when discussing guys ready to make big leaps. He’s battled injuries through much of his collegiate career, so 2021 might finally be his chance to break out.

Tarburton’s stats so far aren’t anything to call home about. In fact, the redshirt junior has just two tackles at Penn State. Still, I can see him taking a big step forward in a leadership role this season, especially with an already-banged-up defensive line. Following the addition of transfer talent, Tarburton’s veteran presence and knowledge of the Nittany Lions’ program will certainly come in handy as well.

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