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Penn State Football Vows For Improved Depth & Development

It’s hard to forget Penn State’s most recent game against Iowa.

In a battle between two top-four programs, the Nittany Lions found themselves up 17-3, despite losing captain PJ Mustipher to a season-ending injury on the fifth play of the game. However, when an injured Sean Clifford also left the game, so did his squad’s chances of victory.

Redshirt freshman and backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson entered the game, leaving the somewhat successful offense sputtering. Roberson completed 7-of-21 passes with two interceptions to boot. Penn State’s battered defense did all it could, but it ultimately lost its battle, allowing 20 points en route to a 23-20 loss.

Ten months later, head coach James Franklin and his staff spent much of the team’s 2022 media day on Saturday preaching about the importance of competition and developing younger players.

“Whether you have an injury or whether you have a guy that is struggling or not playing the way they’re capable of playing, Franklin said. “[It’s important] having a legitimate option right behind him.”

“You better have a starter that you feel really good about,” Franklin continued. “You better have a backup that you think you can win Big Ten games with, and you better have a young exciting guy developing at every single position.”

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz preached the importance of competition, saying that you don’t want players to feel “secure” because growth is always a factor.

Penn State’s first-year defensive coordinator later articulated that mantra as a reminder, not a threat. Diaz said players compete against themselves. When execution is subpar, the bench awaits, but anyone can just as quickly earn their way back into top rotations.

“We grade everything. We grade practice every day,” Diaz said. “As a coach, we’re the scorekeeper. You determine whether you want to play or not… The players know we’re not playing favorites.”

Envisioning his ideal defense based on past successes, Diaz described a squad characterized by quality substitutes (more aptly considered alternates) quickly and consistently relieving those in need. The 24-year coaching veteran sees the current environment of constant evaluation and jockeying for positions as the blueprint for creating well-rounded units.

“We have to have 22 guys, at the minimum, that can go in the game and the defense has no drop-off,” Diaz said.

Diaz’s goal speaks to the team’s overall message — avoiding complacency and overcoming adversity.

“You don’t make it through the season based on how strong your ‘one’ is,” Diaz said. “You make it through the season based on how weak your ‘two’ or ‘three’ is. Those guys are gonna get called on at some point during this and you don’t know [at] which position.”

In his comments, James Franklin identified weak points in the coaching staff’s approach last season.

“I think back [and] we had opportunities last year to get [developing players] in to play earlier in some games,” Franklin said. “We did… but maybe if we would have done that earlier in the year… we would have been more prepared when the time came.

“That could have been preparing guys for a bigger role or being able to evaluate guys and say ‘they can or can’t do it… somebody else maybe needs an opportunity,'” Franklin continued.

Regarding those who might receive opportunities, Franklin, Diaz, and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich expressed positive sentiments about the team’s current depth. With the impending returns of the previously injured offensive lineman Sal Wormley and defensive linemen Adisa Isaac and PJ Mustipher, the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff shared even more optimism about their roster’s thoroughness.

Offensively, the coaches expect the young quarterback, running back, and wide receiver rooms to be more prepared than in years prior. Defensively, the team is comfortable filling open holes in-house.

“With all the players that came through the portal, we did not feel like any option would improve our football team,” Diaz said. “I think that says a lot about how our guys practiced in the spring.”

Across the board, players like Jonathan Sutherland (safety to linebacker), Zakee Wheatley (cornerback to safety), Keon Wylie (defensive end to linebacker), and Mason Stahl (quarterback to wide receiver) have already made positional changes to better fit team needs.

“I think we have more depth than we’ve had the last two years,” Franklin said. “There was a significant drop-off [when we] got into the second-team guys last year, and I don’t think that’s the case this year.”


Editor’s Note: Some quotes were lightly edited for clarity.

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to sam@onwardstate.com or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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