If you carefully examine the 2019 Penn State football roster, all 119 names of it, the first thing you notice is that this is an incredibly young team.
How young? The Nittany Lions feature 90 players with freshman and sophomore eligibility, including 31 true freshmen (counting walk-ons) and 21 redshirt freshmen. They have just 10 seniors.
Penn State lost 30 lettermen from last season, the most prominent being three-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley. Included in that total are nine of the 13 people who transferred out of the program, including backup quarterback Tommy Stevens (Mississippi State) and wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Oregon).
Head coach James Franklin will tell you the young players are talented and carry positives, calling them “a bunch of guys that are hungry and are excited, that have something to really prove and got a chip on their shoulder.”
After that, however, there are plenty of questions to answer in training camp, and we’re not even counting the battle for the starting quarterback job featuring redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and redshirt freshman Will Levis.
Penn State starts the season with three non-conference games. They’re all at Beaver Stadium but you know the nerves will be jangling with 100,000 people or more in the house.
Then comes the Big Ten opener on a Friday night at Maryland, which could be crazy. Other conference games away will be at Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Ohio State, not a gimme in the bunch.
“Experience counts and experience matters,” Franklin said. “Experience playing major college football, playing in Beaver Stadium, playing in all these different venues that we are going to go on the road, that is a factor. There’s no doubt about it. But that’s our job. Our job is to help these guys gain as much experience and as much confidence as we possibly can, and also create depth.
“Obviously, for us, we’re focused on all the positives. But we have an awareness, obviously, of the challenges that come with it.”
Leaders like McSorley, Johnson, and tackle Ryan Bates on offense, and defensive end Shareef Miller and safety Nick Scott on defense all have departed. Franklin said some players have been “thrust into leadership roles that probably under typical situations would not be.”
That group includes underclassmen such as redshirt sophomore wide receiver KJ Hamler, sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth, and sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons. But there are enough upperclassmen to take the reins, including redshirt junior defensive end Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter), senior guard Steven Gonzalez, and senior safety Garrett Taylor.
And don’t forget the new starting quarterback, whether it’s Clifford or Levis.
In the offseason, Penn State brought in transfer Jordan Stout, a redshirt sophomore from Virginia Tech who ranked fourth last year in FBS in touchback percentage at 84.5 percent. Though he made just four extra points and missed his only field-goal attempt in 2018, he is competing for the starting job at kicker.
First-year special teams coordinator Joe Lorig welcomes the competition, noting that “everybody gets better” in such a situation.
Pinegar went 16-of-24 on field goals and 53-of-55 on extra points in his freshman season. But he missed six of his 11 attempts from 40 yards and longer, and will have to pick that up.
Three to watch are linebacker Brandon Smith, running back Noah Cain, and safety Keaton Ellis, who played his high school ball across town at State College. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Smith was a five-star recruit out of Louisa, Va. Cain was an early enrollee who impressed at April’s Blue-White Game, and Ellis impressed in the spring.