If you peel back the layers of the craziest off-season in history, there is a silver lining nestled just inside the start and then restart of the 2020 Penn State football season. This silver lining firmly entrenched in the new-look Offense we’re here to preview and it’s wheels began turning last season, long before Covid struck, Spring ball got cancelled, and the Big Ten stumbled its way towards kickoff; albeit almost two months later than normal.
With an always pesky road trip to Indiana looming ahead and fast approaching, if you really want to gauge this offense, it’s best to look back at that fateful trip to Minnesota a year ago first. You know, THAT gut-wrencher in Minneapolis. I still feel the sting and so do you. Go ahead and admit it. The Nittany Lions were coming off a much-needed bye after conquering as tough a three-game gauntlet as any in the country, they were freshly crowned a Top 4 Playoff team and beaming with pride, only to walk into a swarm of Gophers and play our stud defense like they were a pinballs in a rigged machine. It was expected to be nothing more than a tune-up for that trip to Columbus but it turned into a post-Halloween nightmare instead. The Minnesota game plan was a masterpiece, and just a month later (as Ricky Rahne left to take over as Head Coach at ODU) the maestro of the offense that stuck a dagger in our heart, Central PA-native out of Lewisburg, Kirk Ciarrocca, was welcomed home with open arms as the new Offensive Coordinator.
As for the components that will make up this new-look juggernaut, not much else has changed. With the exception of KJ Hamler and guard Steven Gonzalez, not only does Penn State return most of its starters that last hung a robust 51 points on an overwhelmed Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, but a vast majority of the two-deep return as well! Back to take his game to the next level is second-year starter at QB, Sean Clifford, as is his understudy, Will Levis, who filled in like a champ when injuries took a toll in mid-November. Redshirt freshman Taquan Roberson will provide the third team option. Back, despite contrary reports before the re-start was announced, is all-everything tight end Pat Freiermuth, who had every reason to leave but chose to finish what he started instead. Redshirt sophomore Zack Kuntz and redshirt freshman Brenton Strange step into the backup role Nick Bowers left behind, and true freshman Theo Johnson is already reportedly fighting for snaps.
The Lawn Boyz you ask? Back and fully intact, with the exception of Ricky Slade who was never able to live up to the hype and followed Rahne to ODU. Senior and self-anointed ‘Old Head’ of the bunch, Journey Brown, returns with something to prove as he wreaked havoc on anyone who got in his way over the second half of 2019. Back is Noah Cain who so mercilessly punished the trenches late in games until a nagging injury slowed him down, and Devyn Ford who always seemed to gain meaningful yards whenever given the chance. To offset the loss of Slade, the Nittany Lions added not one, but two highly touted freshmen from that newfound Florida pipeline in Caziah Holmes and Keyvonne Lee, and both have already turned heads in preseason camp.
How about those much-maligned Big Uglies in the trenches? All back (minus the previously mentioned Gonzo, of course) as seniors Michael Menet represents the anchor at center and Will Fries mans the tackle spot he’s had on lockdown going on three years now. There are camp rumors that the latter could slide over to guard in 2020 to make way for Caedan Wallace, who has reportedly been too good to waste on the sideline. Sophomore Rasheed Wallace has a firm grip at left tackle with Anthony Whigan slated to fill in as needed. Mike Miranda, CJ Thorpe and Des Holmes all return to solidify the rotation at guard, with Bryce Effner and Juice Scruggs pushing for playing time after redshirting in 2019. This creates one of the deepest, most experienced O-Lines hands down in the James Franklin era, a far cry from the days of being unable to field a solid first-team without raiding the defense.
And then there are the wideouts, widely regarded as the most unknown commodity on either side of the ball heading into 2020. Senior Jahan Dotson has been Mr. Dependable throughout his career and gives it one last go as he slides into the slot vacated by Hamler. Behind him are a whole lot of question marks. Daniel George and Cam Sullivan-Brown represent the experience as both got their feet wet a year ago, Sullivan-Brown being one of Penn State’s most efficient receivers in the early part of the year before a leg injury derailed his season. A pair of highly regarded true freshman, KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington are speedsters already being talked about as names to know heading into Indiana, as is Norval Black a JUCO (Lackawanna) transfer with Junior eligibility. Jaden Dotson, TJ Jones, and Malick Meiga are three freshman who will add depth along with former walk-on Isaac Lutz, who is also a key on Special Teams.
With the exception of the receiving corps, who are on a mission to stabilize their identity after two sub-par seasons, this is an offense loaded with talent, experience, and a chip on their shoulder. Unfinished business seems to be the theme as mainstays like Clifford, Brown, Freiermuth, Menet and Fries all chose to return for one last rumble. With a new OC on deck, expectations have already reached a level reminiscent of the Joe Moorhead days of not so long ago. The difference being, when JoeMo arrived, we weren’t quite sure what the man from Fordham had in store, but with Ciarrocca, we all saw in 2019 how easily his offense could wreck someone’s season, at our own expense no less.
The Silver lining in all of this is that as the Big Ten fumbled its way to kicking off the 2020 season, the Lions had two extra months to get acquainted with their shiny, new, hot rod offense. Two extra months of diving into the playbook, watching film until the wee hours of the morning, and getting the new guys up to speed. If my hunch is correct, by the time this squad lands in Bloomington next Saturday, they will hit the ground running full steam ahead!