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At the Outback Bowl, It's Quiet on the COVID Front

'I think Penn State wants to play, and we want to play, so...' Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said.

Penn State plans some changes for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Arkansas, notably on the offensive line and at linebacker. One of those changes also involves the 2022 roster.

Some news and notes from Outback Bowl week ahead of Saturday's game in Tampa.

Staying ahead of COVID

Neither team has made any public statements regarding COVID-related issues, a good sign that the game will go on as scheduled. The teams have participated in a number of bowl-week events, including a bowling outing together one night, and don't appear to be limiting their off-time activities.

Still, Penn State's James Franklin and Arkansas' Sam Pittman have instructed players to be responsible.

"I do think we're at a point in the season where they're kind of sick of listening to me," Franklin said. "We've been pounding these messages home all year long. Overall our doctors and our trainers and our players have done a tremendous job with that.

"We're going to need to do that not just up till game time, because this isn't just about protecting college football, it's also about these guys making great choices so they can be safe and healthy throughout the rest of the year and their lives."

Added Pittman, "I mean, the kids see it. They see this bowl locked out, this bowl locked out. There's not a lot you have to say other than what we're doing, wearing our masks in the building, all that kind of stuff.

"We've got to this far without losing guys to COVID. I know there's new variants and all that right now. I think any time you have a coaching staff and a team that wants to play the game, it's not always that way, but it makes it easier to get the game going. I think Penn State wants to play, and we want to play, so..."

Jonathan Sutherland moving to linebacker

Sutherland, a three-year captain, will return to Penn State in 2022 for his sixth season of eligibility. He also will play another position.

Franklin said that Sutherland will play linebacker in the Outback Bowl ahead of making that switch for 2022. A safety and special teams player, Sutherland will give the position, which is losing two starters, an experience boost.

"That was part of him coming back," Franklin said. "... I think he realizes as well as we do, although he's got some safety skills and [defensive back] skills, he plays his best the closer he is to the football. I think that's his long-term future.

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"It made sense for him to come back, fill one of those roles, be able to put a whole season of tape together of showing probably what his role and identity will be at the next level."

Look for a new left tackle

Ola Fashanu will make his first start at left tackle in the Outback Bowl, a prime-time assignment for the redshirt freshman. Fashanu will start in place of the injured Rasheed Walker, who missed the last two games of the regular season.

Franklin said he planned to play Fashanu (6-6, 313 pounds) more this season, but an injury limited his role.

"We have a lot of faith and confidence in him," Franklin said. "It's going to be exciting to watch him go out and play. He's had a really good week of practice."

Scouting the Razorbacks

Arkansas brings the SEC's second-ranked rushing offense to the Outback Bowl, one Franklin expects to attack his short-handed defense. But Franklin also anticipates quarterback KJ Jefferson fronting the run game.

Jefferson rushed for 554 yards during the regular season, fourth among SEC quarterbacks. And though Jefferson's completion rate (66.9 percent) is the highest in school history, Franklin is preparing his defense for the run.

"I know you talk about balance, but I think it's obvious that they want to run the ball, obviously having a head coach [Sam Pittman] who has an offensive line background," Franklin said. "Those guys usually pride themselves with that. I think his personality and identity shows up on the offensive side of the ball.

"I think they do enough of the things to keep you honest: The play-action passes, RPOs off of that, that can be challenging. Also some of the tricks and gimmick plays. The other thing is, I think when you have that type of quarterback, you have to manage it during the season. When you get to the bowl game, this is the last game of the year, we're expecting them to run that 245-pound quarterback a bunch. We've got to be prepared for that."

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