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Projecting Penn State Football’s 2021 Depth Chart

Penn State football announced Monday it will not release a week-to-week team depth chart throughout the season.

While we won’t get to see official confirmation on who’s slotted where for the Nittany Lions entering their season opener against No. 12 Wisconsin, we can still make some educated predictions on what the depth chart will look like.

Based on conversations with James Franklin throughout the offseason and last year’s roster, here’s our projection for what Penn State’s depth chart looks like entering week one.

Offense

Quarterback

  • Sean Clifford (redshirt senior)
  • Ta’Quan Roberson (redshirt sophomore)
  • Christian Veilleux (freshman)

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as Sean Clifford will obviously get the start in what could be his final season in Happy Valley. As for the backup, James Franklin finally confirmed who that would be during his media availability Tuesday.

“There really hasn’t been a whole lot of conversation,” Franklin said. “I sit in the quarterback meetings every single day and one guy is taking 90 percent of the reps with the ones. Ta’Quan is taking 90 percent of the reps with the twos and Christian [Veilleux] is taking 90 percent of the reps with the threes.”

Running Back

  • Noah Cain (junior)
  • Keyvone Lee (sophomore)
  • John Lovett (graduate transfer)
  • Devyn Ford (junior)
  • Caziah Holmes (sophomore)

All the chatter this offseason surrounding Cain has been that he’ll be full-go once the season gets underway. Expect him to see time early against Wisconsin, while Keyvone Lee and John Lovett will certainly see carries early on this year.

As for fellow second-year star Caziah Holmes and junior Devyn Ford, they many not see as much of the field. If the top three does end up being Cain, Lee, and Lovett to open the year, expect that to be the premier group. Franklin noted earlier in August that the ideal situation would be a mix of three running backs, and nothing more than that.

Wide Receiver

  • Jahan Dotson (senior)
  • Daniel George (redshirt junior)
  • Malick Meiga (redshirt freshman)
  • Parker Washington (sophomore)
  • Winston Eubanks (redshirt senior)
  • Marquis Wilson (junior)
  • KeAndre Lambert-Smith (sophomore)
  • Cam Sullivan-Brown (redshirt senior)
  • Jaden Dottin (redshirt freshman)
  • Liam Clifford (freshman)

After his dominant 2020 campaign, Jahan Dotson is obviously the star of this group. As for who will start alongside him, the consensus is that Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith did enough over the course of their freshman campaigns to earn those spots.

Franklin has been high on veterans such as Cam Sullivan-Brown and Daniel George over the past few weeks, so a steady mix of reps for that pair could be in the mix as well.

“There’s a bunch of veterans that we think should and need to have big roles for us, guys that have been with us for a long time,” Franklin said Tuesday. “When you look at guys like CSB [Cam Sullivan-Brown], who is a guy that we’ve been excited about since the day he stepped on campus. But with that, he’s kind of battled the injury bug. Daniel George is another guy — big, strong, athletic.”

The rest of the room isn’t as clear, however. Marquis Wilson has made the transition from defense to “athlete,” so don’t be surprised if you see him used as part of the passing game at some point this season. Young pass-catchers such as Malick Meiga and Liam Clifford may also provide depth to this group.

Tight End

  • Brenton Strange (redshirt sophomore)
  • Theo Johnson (sophomore)
  • Tyler Warren (redshirt freshman)
  • Khalil Dinkins (freshman)
  • Grayson Kline (redshirt junior)

Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson both showed flashes of talent during a 2020 campaign in which they needed to step up in Pat Freiermuth’s absence.

Franklin has described the group as “the best [he’s] been around in 25 years of college football,” so expectations couldn’t be higher for that top pair. However, Tyler Warren has also worked up some chatter as the expected third-stringer, while Khalil Dinkins comes to Happy Valley as the No. 35 tight end in the Class of 2021.

Offensive Line

Left Tackle

  • Rasheed Walker (redshirt junior)
  • Golden Israel-Achumba (redshirt freshman)
  • Landon Tengwall (freshman)

Left Guard

  • Anthony Whigan (redshirt senior) OR Eric Wilson (senior)
  • Sal Wormley (redshirt sophomore)

Center

  • Mike Miranda (redshirt senior)
  • Juice Scruggs (redshirt junior)
  • Bryce Effner (redshirt junior)

Right Guard

  • Juice Scruggs (redshirt junior)
  • Des Holmes (redshirt senior)
  • Nick Dawkins (redshirt freshman)

Right Tackle

  • Caeden Wallace (redshirt sophomore)
  • Bryce Effner (redshirt junior)
  • Olu Fashanu (redshirt freshman)

Based on who Penn State lost on the offensive line last season, most of these starters should come as no surprise as they step up from 2020 second-string roles. With Mike Miranda over to center, however, one of the clearest holes comes at left guard.

Franklin confirmed earlier this week that Anthony Whigan and Harvard transfer Eric Wilson will split time at the spot.

“Whigan has been with us for a while and has really had the right attitude and the right approach and has worked his tail off,” Franklin said. “Eric is a young man who transferred in and I think it was an adjustment when he first got here but continues to get better. They will both play. They’ll both play on Saturday.”

As for the rotational players, young talents such as Landon Tengwall, Olu Fashanu, and Nick Dawkins could add depth. Redshirt junior Bryce Effner also has extensive experience in Happy Valley and could plug in when needed across the line.

Defense

Defensive End

  • Arnold Ebiketie (redshirt senior)
  • Jesse Luketa (senior)
  • Amin Vanover (redshirt freshman)
  • Nick Tarburton (redshirt junior)
  • Smith Vilbert (redshirt sophomore)
  • Zuriah Fisher (redshirt freshman)

Based on his impressive career at Temple and the amount of praise Arnold “AK” Ebiketie has received from several coaches this offseason, expect him to start as an edge rusher this fall. Across Ebiketie, Nick Tarburton seems to finally have put it together entering his redshirt junior campaign. The Green Lane, Pennsylvania native has dealt with injuries throughout his career, but his coaches and teammates are excited to see what he can now do in an increased role.

Outside of that starting pair, Jesse Luketa also gets plenty of attention rotating at defensive end this fall. Franklin confirmed earlier this week that the Canadian will play on the line and at linebacker throughout the season.

“He has shown that he’s able to handle it. He’s extremely smart, extremely football smart,” Franklin said. “I  think Coach Pry does a really good job of teaching concepts, the big picture at the linebacker position, which I think helped his transition to defensive line.”

Smith Vilbert has also gotten plenty of attention since he arrived in Happy Valley as an impressive athlete, while Zuriah Fisher could also see a rotational role. The former four-star prospect appeared in just the season finale against Illinois last fall.

Defensive Tackle

  • PJ Mustipher (senior)
  • Derrick Tangelo (senior)
  • Dvon Ellies (redshirt sophomore)
  • Coziah Izzard (redshirt freshman)
  • Hakeem Beamon (redshirt sophomore)
  • Fred Hansard (redshirt senior)
  • Jordan van den Berg (sophomore)
  • Joseph Darkwa (redshirt sophomore)

First-year captain PJ Mustipher will lead Penn State’s hog mollies up front this year, without question. Outside of that veteran, however, there are some questions surrounding this group. Hakeem Beamon could see a starting role but could be undersized for the position, considering he’s currently listed at just 256 pounds.

If it’s not Beamon, expect veteran Fred Hansard to be solidly in the mix, alongside Duke transfer Derrick Tangelo. Tangelo, a Maryland native, made 25 starts over the course of four seasons in Durham, but Franklin said Wednesday that his top choice as a recruit was Penn State.

“No disrespect to anyone, but this is where he wanted to come — kind of his dream school,” Franklin said. “He’s done a really good job.”

Redshirt sophomore Dvon Ellies appeared in three games in 2020, and could certainly see an increased role on the interior this season.

Linebacker

Outside

  • Curtis Jacobs (sophomore)
  • Charlie Katshir (redshirt junior)
  • Jonathan Sutherland (redshirt senior)

Middle

  • Ellis Brooks (redshirt senior)
  • Jesse Luketa (senior)

Outside

  • Brandon Smith (junior)
  • Tyler Elsdon (redshirt freshman)
  • Jamari Buddin (freshman)
  • Kobe King (freshman)

Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith are the obvious leaders of this group, while Luketa will likely rotate at the middle spot while he also spends time at defensive end.

Charlie Katshir, now entering his fourth season in Happy Valley, has gotten plenty of praise from Brent Pry over the past few months and could see more key time. One of the biggest changes, however, comes from Jonathan Sutherland taking reps at outside linebacker this offseason. Sutherland, a three-time captain, has a ton of experience at safety and special teams, and could potentially be a valuable add in a rotational role.

Highly recruited freshman Jamari Buddin and Kobe King may not see a lot of the field this year, but expect them to fit into the rotation at some point.

Cornerback

  • Tariq Castro-Fields (senior)
  • Johnny Dixon (junior)
  • AJ Lytton (junior)
  • Joey Porter Jr. (redshirt sophomore)
  • Daequan Hardy (redshirt sophomore)
  • Kalen King (freshman)

Tariq Castro-Fields is the obvious starter in his return from injury, while Joey Porter Jr.’s breakout redshirt freshman year makes him a key member for the room as well.

Expect to see a lot of transfer Johnny Dixon, as the junior had a nice 2020 season at South Carolina and could likely translate his abilities to the Big Ten. Kalen King also has plenty of hype entering this year, as Franklin has already described him as one of the most advanced freshmen he’s seen.

Safety

  • Jaquan Brisker (senior)
  • Tyler Rudolph (redshirt sophomore)
  • Jonathan Sutherland (redshirt sophomore)
  • Drew Hartlaub (redshirt senior)
  • Ji’Ayir Brown (senior)
  • Keaton Ellis (junior)
  • Enzo Jennings (redshirt freshman)
  • Jaylen Reed (freshman)

Franklin confirmed Wednesday night that Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown will be the starters at safety this Saturday, but “they’ll be other guys” that rotate in at both spots.

With that in mind, Tyler Rudolph and Keaton Ellis come to mind as players that could take advantage of that role. Rudolph appeared in five games last year as a redshirt freshman and could now be primed for more time, while Ellis has two productive seasons of cornerback under his belt and has now made a transition to safety.

Sutherland will also continue to see time at safety, while Jaylen Reed was mentioned by Franklin last week as a freshman who has caught the attention of several coaches.

Special Teams

Punter

  • Jordan Stout (redshirt senior)
  • Barney Amor (redshirt senior)

Kicker (Field Goal)

  • Short-range: Jake Pinegar
  • Long-range: Jordan Stout

Kicker (Kickoff)

  • Jordan Stout

Holder

  • Jordan Stout and Barney Amor

Long Snapper

  • Chris Stoll (redshirt senior)

Kick Returners

  • Devyn Ford
  • Jaquan Brisker

Punt Returner

  • Jahan Dotson

There’s no reason to believe Jordan Stout won’t be a busy man once again this fall. He’ll certainly deal with long-range field goals — while Pinegar will likely handle extra points and everything else in close — work as a holder, and handle kickoff duties. Unless Colgate transfer Barney Amor successfully beats Stout for the punting spot, the Virginia native is likely the special teamer for that job, too.

As for returning duties, Jahan Dotson will likely deal with punts considering his success last year, while a mix of Jaquan Brisker and Devyn Ford are expected on kickoff.

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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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