Projecting Penn State Football’s 2022 Starting Lineup: Quarterback & Running Back

It’s almost here.

Penn State football’s season begins in exactly three weeks when it makes the trip to West Lafayette for a Thursday night matchup with Purdue.

After a hot start, James Franklin’s squad dropped six of its last eight games in 2021. With Mike Yurcich returning, Penn State will have the same offensive coordinator in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2019. An additional year in the system may be the catalyst for improvement in the Nittany Lions’ offense this upcoming season.

Uncertainty surrounds many Penn State position groups, but the quarterback and running back competitions yield relatively clear outcomes. We’re kicking off this season’s preseason projections with Yurcich’s offensive backfield.


  • Starter: Sean Clifford
  • Backup: Christian Veilleux
  • Reserves: Beau Pribula, Drew Allar

Since February, James Franklin has made it clear that sixth-year senior Sean Clifford will be returning as the starter in 2022. Entering with the same offensive system in two consecutive seasons for his first time as the starter, Clifford believes he’s ready to elevate the offense.

“Every spring, you enter and you’re either learning an offense or you’re mastering an offense,” Clifford said during the Big Ten’s media day. “In the past three years, I’ve only been able to learn an offense. This is the first year that we’re having the same [offensive coordnaitor] in Coach Yurcich where I can master the offense with my guys… to take that next step.”

While his season ended with blemishes of injuries and inconsistency, Clifford was playing some of the best football of his career before health issues arose. No. 14 finished the year with 3,107 yards, 21 touchdowns, and a career-best 61% completion percentage (discounting his seven-throw season in 2018). If Clifford can return to his early season form, there’s no reason he and Mike Yurcich can’t generate strong production.

As the only remaining quarterback with game experience, Christian Veilleux is the obvious choice to back up Clifford. After all, he looked poised in his lone start against Rutgers last year.

Although both Drew Allar and Beau Pribula have high ceilings, it is unlikely Penn State will opt to burn either redshirt. Allar joined the program as the nation’s top quarterback recruit, and by all accounts, Pribula has looked good in practices, but they are still true freshmen quarterbacks who will take time to develop. Their performances at the 2022 Blue-White Game only demonstrated that.

Running Back:

  • Starters: Keyvone Lee, Nick Singleton
  • Backups: Devyn Ford, Kaytron Allen
  • Reserves: Caziah Holmes, Tank Smith, Tyler Holzworth

Penn State has not designated a solitary running back as the bell cow in recent history. Part of that may be chalked up to the room’s plummeted performance since Journey Brown’s 2020 retirement, but it also appears to be strategic.

In the past three seasons, James Franklin has shown a propensity to roll with the hot hand. Carries were often split among multiple running backs. Even when they weren’t, it wasn’t always easy to predict who would take the load’s majority. Last year alone, three running backs led individual games in rushing –Keyvone Lee, Noah Cain, and John Lovett.

Lee paced the team in carries (108) and rushing yards (530) last season, so it seems likely he will maintain a senior role among the group initially. With the remaining two of last year’s trio no longer on the team (Cain transferred to LSU and Lovett signed with the Panthers), there is an opening for someone else to break into the conversation.

The safest bet for another starting role is true freshman Nick Singleton. Named the Gatorade National Player of the Year and the Maxwell Offensive National High School Player of the Year, the Class of 2022’s highest-ranked running back recruit entered Happy Valley with ample buzz. Penn State’s coaches must see truth in some of that hype, as Singleton joined Lee in taking first-team reps at the Blue-White Game.

Two other running backs that will likely figure into the rushing picture are senior Devyn Ford and true freshman Kaytron Allen.

Ford has been a consistent fixture in the Nittany Lions’ rushing scheme. Though he has struggled at times as the lead back, Ford has shown success in relief roles. Supplanted last season by the arrival of John Lovett, Ford’s carries dropped to 14. In 2019 and 2020, Ford had 52 and 67 carries, respectively. With the open competition, the senior is more likely to see totals resembling those of his earlier career.

“Being an experienced guy, he’s got to be a leader for us,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said at Penn State’s Media Day. “We expect him to continue to compete his butt off… the same thing we ask all of our tailbacks to do. But with [his] experience, he can be a mentor and a leader for us on this unit.”

Allen is the natural final option among the backups. Signing with the team in the Class of 2022 alongside Nick Singleton, Allen served as the team’s second top running back prospect of the recruiting cycle.

Allen’s youth and inexperience may temper his immediate opportunities, but Penn State has not shied away from doling out in-game reps to true freshmen. In 2019, Ford and Cain made immediate marks in their first year, and again in 2020, Lee and Caziah Holmes jumped right into the backfield.

Rounding out the running back room, Holmes, redshirt junior Tank Smith, and redshirt freshman Tyler Holzworth are comfortable locks for reserve roles in the coming season.

Despite Holmes’ commitment generating excitement among fans, the former four-star recruit quickly took a backseat to fellow Class of 2020 signee Keyvone Lee. His stock fell even further last season when amidst the team’s weak rushing season, Holmes still only managed five carries on the year. For context, wide receiver Jahan Dotson and tight end Tyler Warren had more attempts.

With two high potential freshman prospects now on the team, the running back room is too crowded for Holmes to make a statement this season, barring an injury.

Elsewhere, Smith and Holzworth lack the experience necessary to improve the Nittany Lions’ rush attack this year. Smith is coming off a four-carry season, bringing his career total to five. Holzworth is a recent addition from Division III school Delaware Valley. Perhaps their time will come, but the odds are not in their favor for 2022.

Regardless of which players earn the nod, Penn State’s coaching staff has frequently highlighted the run game as a desired point of improvement approaching this season. The running backs are well aware of that fact, especially given the poor performance in recent memory.

“[Running backs coach Ja’Juan] Seider always reminds us nobody rushed for a hundred yards last year,” Lee said. “So, [we’re] wearing a chip on our shoulder that… we can’t have a year like that. We can’t do that again.”

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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 [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

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

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