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Unfinished business? Unfinished business.
Your friends here at Black Shoe Diaries work tirelessly to bring you the latest Penn State news and stories. How could we possibly consider ourselves a real news outlet if we don’t bring you baseless conjecture and off season talking points? It’s January, we have 7 months to go until football returns for real, and it’s high time we talk about the 2020 depth chart. Without further ado, we present to you next season’s offense!
Center: *Michal Menet (RS SR), Nick Dawkins (FR)
Friends, if there are two things you want in an offensive line, it’s experience and continuity. How do two redshirt seniors, two redshirt juniors, and one redshirt sophomore strike you as experience? Those little askerisk doohickies are there to denote returning starters. If you’ll notice, there are four little asterisk doohickies, which is a lot for an offensive line. How do four returning starters out of five, with the fifth being the “third” guard who heavily rotated on both sides of the line, strike you as continuity? Let’s start on the left and work our way through, shall we?
At left tackle, Rasheed Walker is back, and will continue to be the stalwart protector of the blindside that he has been since taking over in 2019. Behind him, Des Holmes and Bryce Effner will duke it out for backup duty, though don’t be surprised if these two along with Caedan Wallace and Anthony Whigan see their name pop up across the entirety of the second team.
At left guard, Mike Miranda takes over from the departed Steven Gonzalez . Miranda is slated as the only “new” starter on the offensive line in 2020, but he was used very heavily in rotation with Gonzalez and C.J. Thorpe at both guard positions in 2019. I’ll go as far as to say that Penn State has 4.5/5 returning starters at OL, Miranda saw so much action. I’ve tentatively got Juice Scruggs as the backup, but he’s still recovering from his car accident-related back injury, so Saleem Wormley may end up getting the backup role.
Michal Menet returns at center, and frankly the depth behind him is a little worrisome. Hunter Kelly just declared that he would be transferring out last night, and given that he was a converted defensive tackle and former walk on, it was always more than possible some of the other backups at guard might end up being the second team center. Someone will rise to the second team, but frankly I’m not sure who.
C.J. Thorpe is back at right guard, and will continue to maul people to death. Similar to left guard, there are a few players who could end up backing up either side of the line, but for now I’ll leave Whigan here.
And last but not least we have Will Fries as the final returning starter on the offensive line. The redshirt senior has played a LOT of football, and has been solid. Wallace is a solid backup, but if injuries mount we could see some shuffling across the entirety of the offensive line.
One thing to note about the OL is that Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense is pretty different from Ricky Rahne’s, at least in terms of the run game. While Rahne often called on offensive linemen to pull, Ciarrocca runs mostly zone, whether inside or outside. In essence, smash the dude across from you on run plays. I have to figure that will only help improve an already exceptional rushing game.
The other thing to note about the OL is the new offensive line coach, Phil Trautwein. While Trautwein is young (only 2 weeks older than this here writer, and I’m a spring chicken thankyouverymuch), his success as an OL coach is obvious. In the two years he spent as the OL coach at Boston College, the team never gave up more than 23 sacks in a season, and never averaged worse than 4.1 yards per carry. Due in large part to his efforts, all five starting BC offensive linemen were named to All-ACC teams. I’ll take a big ol’ hit of that, please.
The Sean Clifford Show returns, and will look to make a big leap forward in year 2 as starter. Clifford’s strengths were in the medium-to-long passing game, and when using his legs. The issues in his game stemmed from a lack of progression in the passing game, short-to-medium passes, and some indecisiveness in the option game. Most of these issues can be fixed with experience, but I think the biggest boon could be Kirk Ciarrocca.
The new offensive coordinator worked wonders in getting Minnesota’s receivers into space creatively, and made Tanner Morgan look like Aaron Rodgers against Penn State. Ciarrocca has been a quarterbacks coach longer than he has been an offensive coordinator, and the hope is that he can help Clifford fine tune his game. If Clifford takes the next step in 2020, the offense will be very dangerous indeed.
Behind Sean, Will Levis returns as backup, followed by Ta’Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr. Levis did well enough in his time against Ohio State and Rutgers, but it became apparent quickly that he is much more of a running quarterback than a passer. Similar to Clifford, the hope is that Ciarrocca can help Levis in the passing game and become a more well-rounded quarterback.
To the surprise of many, Journey Brown took hold of the starting running back position in 2019, when most (myself included) thought he would be relegated to fourth-string behind Ricky Slade , Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford. Brown is a very complete back, who really only needs some polishing in pass protection and in the receiving game. He could also maybe use another 5-10 pounds in the lower body to motor through arm tackles, but he’s as solid a starter as you could like, and probably could have tested the NFL waters this year if he wanted to.
Noah Cain very well could have taken the starting role for himself, but some injuries kept him off the field for stretches of the season. Cain is a workhorse, and no matter what happens will always get positive yardage. Unlike Cain, Devyn Ford was not an early enrollee, and so didn’t get as much time at the college level before 2019; however, he has been described as the most complete back on the team, so 2020 should be a fun year for him.
And then there are the two new blue chip freshmen running back, Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee. As much as I don’t think any blue chip running back should redshirt ever again under Franklin (injuries aside), I can’t help but think there just won’t be enough touches for both freshmen to play more than four games next season.
No matter what, the running game should be the biggest strength of the offense next year, as Kirk Ciarrocca has always run a rush-heavy offense, and will now have a team with a heavily talented and experienced offensive line, running a simpler rushing game, and with five stud running backs. I’m not drooling, you’re drooling.
Pat Freiermuth returns as starter at tight end, shunning the NFL to get another season in the Blue and White. There honestly isn’t much that Moose needs to prove at TE, as he blocks well, catches well, and runs well. He’s the most complete TE that Penn State has had in some time, and should be one of the favorites for the Mackey Award next year. I say should because he should have at least been a finalist this year, and was not. So y’know, awards are dumb.
Zack Kuntz is back, and after a couple seasons of adding weight to his lanky frame, will look to fill the receiving tight end role a bit more. Brenton Strange is a bit of a tweener who could fill either role. I’ll be interested in seeing whether either of the freshmen – particularly Theo Johnson – gets any playing time. Given the run-heavy offense Ciarrocca runs, I anticipate seeing a more than a few two-tight end sets. Having more than three TEs may not be 100% necessary, but if any of those top three go down with injury, it might be nice for the backup not to be too rusty.
I’ll be honest with you – the wide receiver room is a bit worrisome. There is talent there – six of 11 recruited wide receivers are blue chip players – but that talent is young: of those six blue chip receivers, four are freshmen, true or redshirt. What’s more, the slot position – WR-Z – seems to be a bit of a wasteland with the departure of KJ Hamler to the NFL, and backup Mac Hippenhammer having struggled with drops the past two seasons.
You’ll notice, then, that there is a new face I’ve placed in the receiver room – one Ricky Slade. Slade entered the 2019 season as the odds-on favorite to take over the starting running back position, but never pulled away from the pack. Rather, Journey Brown and Noah Cain ate into Slade’s playing time more and more until Ricky was at best third on the depth chart. Given that all of the other RBs on the roster return, and two more blue chippers are joining the team, something has to give. I think it makes a ton of sense for Slade to take over the slot receiver role.
Ricky has proven himself an excellent receiver, totaling 13 catches for 117 yards in his career, averaging nine yards per reception. He has the speed and especially the quickness to fill the slot role while taller, more straight-line runners flank him to the outside. Slade moving would a) alleviate the pressure for playing time in the running back room, and b) bring some experience and talent to the wide receiver room which could frankly use a bit of both.
Another key piece to this puzzle is the departure of wide receivers coach Gerad Parker, off to be the offensive coordinator at West Virginia. The receivers cut down on the number of drops this year, and it would have been nice to see how the group looked next year under his tutelage. But the flip side is it never seemed like Clifford got comfortable with anyone in the group other than Hamler. Justin Shorter opted to transfer late in the season, due at least in part to being underutilized in the passing game. Here’s hoping the next WR coach can continue the upward trend Parker started, and get all of the playmakers involved.
Once again, Kirk Ciarrocca should be mentioned, as he took Minnesota’s plodding offense and turned them into a dangerous passing attack. The biggest things I noticed when watching Minnesota were that the receivers ran very effective routes against the given coverage, and that they snagged everything thrown their way. I believe Ciarrocca will improve the route trees and simplify the passing game a bit, which should help both quarterback and receiver, and here’s hoping the next WR coach can continue to work on the receivers’ hands and confidence levels so it’s no longer in doubt what will happen when Clifford unleashes a pass.
Well, there you have it. The Lions offense will return a total of eight starters (though really you could say 8.5 with Miranda on the OL), providing invaluable continuity at nearly every position on offense. The projected 11 starters will average 3.7 years on a college campus – when your average starting football player rounds up to senior eligibility, you have an experienced team.
The projected 11 starters’ average recruiting rating was 0.9233. When eight of 11 starters were blue chip recruits, you have a talented team. And in case you were wondering, the three former 3-star players are Mike Miranda, who would make the bear from the Revenant abandon its cubs, Will Fries, who has locked down the right side of the line for what will be 3 years, and Journey Brown, perhaps the most complete running back on the roster.
Pair this experienced, talented offense with a new offensive coordinator, and you have the makings of one of the best offenses in college football. Kirk Ciarrocca will implement his zone rushing scheme in conjunction with Phil Trautwein’s offensive line strengths, taking an already potent run game and elevating it even further. KC will take his many years of experience as quarterbacks coach to take Clifford and Levis to the next level, and simplify the passing game so that both receiver and quarterback are on the same page. A new face coaching receivers, some shuffling of talent across the roster to ease playing time woes at one position group and boosting the skill and experience of another, and Penn State will move into the upper echelon of college football offenses.
Here’s to 2020 everyone!