Opt-Outs To Provide Key Opportunity For Penn State’s Young Talent In Season Finale
Compared to the last time it took the field back on November 27, Penn State football’s roster will look a lot different when it takes on No. 21 Arkansas in the Outback Bowl this Saturday.
Six Nittany Lions have opted out of post-season play as they begin preparations for the NFL Draft, including five starters on defense. Linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith — Penn State’s top tacklers on the year — are both skipping the game against the Razorbacks, while standout safety Jaquan Brisker elected to follow suit. Defensive linemen Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo have also chosen to get a head start on their professional careers.
James Franklin mentioned at Wednesday’s bowl press conference that in all of his 12 years as his head coach, he’s never had a player opt out of a bowl. There’s understandably some challenges that come with the growing trend, as the Nittany Lions will be forced to plug a number of fairly inexperienced players into key spots.
“At the end of the day the reality is you got to find a way to get it done. As one door closes, another door opens,” Franklin said. “It’s an opportunity for another player. I think it’s also going to give us a really good kind of picture of what our future is going to be. Guys are going to get a bunch of reps in this game that maybe hadn’t throughout the season.”
As already noted, Penn State’s defense will be tasked with replacing its most productive tacklers. Smith, who finished his junior season by becoming the first-ever Nittany Lion to announce he’ll skip a bowl, finished second on the group with 81 total tackles. The Virginia native also forced a fumble and had two sacks on the year.
Brooks finished his fifth season in Happy Valley with a bang, as he was the Nittany Lions’ leader with 100 total tackles.
Franklin explained Wednesday that Jonathan Sutherland’s expected transition to linebacker will help make up for those losses against Arkansas. Along with that position change, however, young talents who just arrived in Happy Valley will be asked to step into increased roles.
“Yeah, we’re going to have to burn some redshirts,” Franklin said. “We’ve been very strategic about playing guys in four games, playing some guys in three games, saving a game for a bowl, things like that.”
In terms of burning redshirts, Jamari Buddin and Kobe King are two of the most clear examples. Franklin didn’t list them in particular, but the pair of true freshmen would both lose redshirt status with the Outback Bowl counting as their fifth game played.
As frustrating as that prospect might be, the final game will provide an opportunity for both young defenders to earn valuable in-game experience. Buddin has made four total tackles this season while King has just three, but the pair both arrived as highly-touted defensive prospects. In the coaching staff’s eyes, Saturday will serve as a perfect test against a solid SEC offense.
While plenty of talent is leaving on defense, perhaps the most notable opt-out belongs to Jahan Dotson. The stud wideout from Nazareth, Pa. leaves Penn State near the top of the leaderboard in several all-time receiving records, and just capped off a senior campaign that included 91 catches and 13 total scores.
“Jahan had an opportunity last year to leave and decided to come back. I think it really helped him,” Franklin said. “All the draft reports that we’ve gotten, I think it’s really helped him and Penn State…Losing Jahan, everybody knows he was our big-play guy, has been for the last couple years. Last year as a punt returner and receiver, this year mainly as a receiver.”
There’s no denying how much the Nittany Lions will miss Dotson’s production, but the same point remains for Franklin and the coaching staff: a chance for future go-to targets to showcase what they can do on a national stage.
“But it’s an opportunity for KeAndre [Lambert-Smith], for Parker [Washington], an opportunity for [Malick] Meiga and those guys to step up,” Franklin said. “It’s not like there’s going to be one guy that’s going to step up and replace that production, it needs to be a little bit of all the guys.”
Just like its defense, Penn State’s offense will look plenty different on Saturday. But Lambert-Smith and Washington both had productive seasons themselves, the latter of which made 57 catches for 722 yards. The pair of sophomores will be relied upon as top targets next year, and this weekend’s season finale could serve as a preview for what’s to come on that side of the ball.
The fresh-faced Nittany Lions will try to finish the 2021 campaign on a high note against the Razorbacks at noon Saturday on ESPN2.
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