The 2020 Penn State football team likely has lost redshirt junior Journey Brown, its top running back from last season, because of an undisclosed medical condition but still returns eight starters from last year’s squad that won 11 games for the third time in the last four seasons. The defense saw seven starters depart from the 2019 squad. including All-America Micah Parsons, who opted out in May.
The question marks for the Nittany Lions entering the new season are at wide receiver, linebacker, and at two positions in the secondary.
Here is a look at the Penn State roster:
When Penn State throws the ball
It was an odd year for the Nittany Lions' offense. While the unit ranked 15th in FBS averaging 35.8 points per game, you had to go down to 57th place in the total offense category (411.9 yards per game) to find it. Kirk Ciarrocca is the new offensive coordinator after three seasons in the same capacity at Minnesota.
In his first season as the starting quarterback, redshirt junior Sean Clifford passed for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns, finishing 27th in FBS in passing efficiency. He also rushed for 402 yards and averaged 254.7 yards per game in total offense, but he got banged up near the end of the regular season and sat out the Rutgers game.
Junior tight end Pat Freiermuth (43 catches, 507 yards, seven touchdowns), an All-America candidate, is Clifford’s most reliable receiver and has caught at least one pass in each of his last 25 games. Penn State found frequent success last season with 12 personnel, meaning redshirt freshman Brenton Strange or redshirt sophomore Zack Kuntz will see action as a second tight end.
The Lions need to find consistency with their wideouts. Junior Jahan Dotson (27 receptions, five touchdowns, 18.1-yard average per catch) is the top returnee. Redshirt sophomore Daniel George and redshirt junior Cam Sullivan-Brown combined for 17 catches last season, although Sullivan-Brown missed the last nine games with an injury. Freshman Parker Washington apparently has won the job at one wideout position, and other young players competing for playing time are redshirt freshman T.J. Jones and freshman KeAndre Lambert-Smith.
Ciarrocca has indicated the running backs will be more involved in the passing game. Brown had 15 catches last season while his replacements, sophomores Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, combined for just 12.
The Nittany Lions' offensive line is experienced — five starters return, including two who split 13 starts at right guard — but it must improve on its 2019 total of 32 sacks allowed (98th in FBS). A pair of redshirt seniors, center Michal Menet and tackle Will Fries — were honorable mention All-Big Ten selections last season. Fries has the most career starts, 32, of any current player.
Redshirt sophomore Rasheed Walker started every game at left tackle last year. Redshirt juniors C.J. Thorpe and Mike Miranda will be at the guard spots. Redshirt junior Des Holmes (Cardinal O’Hara) came off the bench at tackle in all 13 games last season, and there is talented, if inexperienced, depth on the rest of the line.
When Penn State runs the ball
Brown led the team in rushing last season with 890 yards, including a program bowl-record 202 yards in the Cotton Bowl, and was expected to lead the running back room in 2020.
Before Brown surged in his final five games, the Lions played their running backs by committee. Cain had back-to-back 100-yard games against Purdue and Iowa before injuries limited him to one carry in his final four regular-season games, but he ended up as the team’s No. 2 rusher with 443 yards and eight touchdowns. Ford added 294 yards.
A pair of four-star recruits, freshmen Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee, are likely to get an opportunity in Brown’s absence.
When Penn State defends the run
The front seven of 2019 held opponents to 95 rushing yards per game last season, fifth-best in the nation. The bad news is that five of those seven are gone, including the incredibly talented Parsons, a consensus All-America last season who opted out in May.
A pair of fifth-year seniors, end Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter) and tackle Antonio Shelton, are the returning defensive linemen. Toney enters the season with 15 ½ career sacks and 22 tackles for losses. Redshirt sophomore end Jayson Oweh, whose speed (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash at 257 pounds) has NFL scouts drooling, and junior tackle PJ Mustipher, round out the front four.
If first-year defensive line coach John Scott Jr. adopts the same M.O. as his predecessor, Sean Spencer, of playing 10 or more linemen to keep them fresh, that gives chances to fifth-year end Shane Simmons, redshirt junior tackle Fred Hansard, redshirt sophomore tackle Judge Culpepper and sophomore end Adisa Isaac, among others.
The Lions must replace their three linebackers. The replacements — redshirt junior Ellis Brooks, junior Jesse Luketa, and sophomore Brandon Smith — have shown flashes of promise but need to do it on a more consistent basis with added playing time.
When Penn State defends the pass
The Lions sacked opposing quarterbacks 45 times last season, seventh in the nation. Toney (6 ½) and Oweh (five) are the top returning sackers.
The secondary had some issues, allowing 1,189 yards in three late-season games to Minnesota, Indiana, and Memphis, and finished 100th in the nation in pass defense. Three seniors — cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and safeties Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker — have talent to go with experience. Redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr. is the other starting corner.
With the fine passing games of Indiana and Ohio State as the first two opponents, the Lions may move Wade to nickel and have redshirt junior Jonathan Sutherland as a safety.
When Penn State kicks and covers kicks
Junior Jake Pinegar nailed 11 out of his 12 field-goal attempts and 56 of 58 extra-point tries last season. Redshirt junior Jordan Stout attempted three field goals of more than 50 yards and converted two, including a school-record 57-yard kick against Pittsburgh.
Stout wowed the fans when it came to kickoffs, booming almost 80% (66 of 83) into the end zone for touchbacks. With four-year punter Blake Gillikin having moved on, Stout takes over those duties as well.
The Nittany Lions excelled on coverage last season, allowing 1.7 yards per punt return (tied for fifth in FBS) and 17.07 yards per kickoff (seventh). Their best special teams players are Sutherland and backup safety Drew Hartlaub.
Return man KJ Hamler moved on to the Denver Broncos. Dotson will be the primary punt returner and Ford is expected to be the new kick returner.