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Penn State Training Camp Confidential

The Nittany Lions open camp Friday, four weeks before heading to Wisconsin. Here's what to expect.

Penn State coach James Franklin opened Big Ten media days last month by establishing a sense of place. Franklin stood on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, site of his team's 38-31 victory over Wisconsin in the 2016 Big Ten title game, and discussed his team's plans to return.

Franklin called it "one of the better" conference championship games played, but the Nittany Lions attending with him said they were "tired" of hearing about five years ago. They're tuned more to another game vs. Wisconsin: the one scheduled for Sept. 4 at Camp Randall Stadium to begin the 2021 season.

Penn State's locker-room countdown clock has been ticking to kickoff for months, and that it says "Wisconsin" makes the Big Ten title-game challenge more real.

"I must admit, having Wisconsin's logo up there, I think has really kind of raised the standard for our guys," Franklin said. "And they understand we'd better be ready to go."

The Lions kick off their championship drive Friday, starting training camp four weeks before leaving for Madison. They have a lot to accomplish in a short time. Where to get started? Here's a look.

Can Mike Yurcich revive Penn State's quarterback play?

The Lions ranked second in the Big Ten in total offense and third in scoring last season. Great place from which to build, right? Instead, Franklin chose to rebuild.

Despite those stats, Penn State's offense struggled in 2020 for a variety of reasons, many of which centered on quarterback play. So Franklin hired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to recapture some of that 2016 stylistic magic that made that team so dangerous.

Franklin wants to make opposing teams defend the width of the field, get his offensive weapons loose in space and run "with power and authority." Ultimately, all of that revolves around the quarterback.

Sean Clifford is the established starter, and the Lions really don't have a No. 2 yet. As a result, Clifford and Yurcich will be tied together tightly during camp.

Backup Ta'Quan Roberson has thrown one college pass, and freshman Christian Veilleux hasn't played since 2019. Further, Franklin didn't find any fits in the transfer market, leaving the Lions with three scholarship quarterbacks for the season. If Clifford can't make it happen, Penn State's offense could return to the same 2020 rut.

Has DC Brent Pry found his 'accountability'?

This offseason, Pry assessed his 2020 defense rather frankly, saying the group lacked "accountability." That stark realization underscored how Penn State allowed at least 30 points in each of its first five games of the season.

"We weren't very accountable last fall," Pry said. "Guys too often [were] not playing in the framework of the defense. That's on me, that's on the guys. We're all taking ownership and we're committed to being more accountable."

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Pry and Franklin are entering their 11th season together as head coach/coordinator, a relationship that has had mostly up moments. Last year definitely marked a downturn on the field. Pry's group has talent, notably in the back seven, and Penn State has produced strong pass-rushers in recent years. Pry gets a break for last season, but 2021's defense can't look so flawed.

Who emerges at running back?

This is a fascinating position, with four returning backs and one transfer player who have experience and different characteristics. Yurcich and running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider certainly have options.

Noah Cain, who participated in parts of spring drills after being injured last season, looks ready to go. Freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes learned plenty from last year, while Devyn Ford needs to "put it together for a whole season," Seider said.

Meanwhile, veteran John Lovett could be the speed back Penn State lacked last season after Journey Brown was forced to retire. Franklin noted Lovett's speed and experience during spring drills, suggesting that the Baylor transfer quickly has become a key player at the position.

Is the offensive line ready to be dominant?

Franklin has made annual predictions about his offensive line growing into a Big Ten force, but those predictions usually fell short. The coach has done so again this year, so we'll wait to judge.

However, Penn State begins camp with most of its lineup questions answered. Tackles Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace really bookend the line. Walker projects among the linemen in the country. according to NFL Draft Bible, and Wallace isn't far behind. In fact, line coach Phil Trautwein said that next year "you should be talking about Caedan as a very, very high draft pick."

Meanwhile, veteran Mike Miranda has settled into the center position, and guard Juice Scruggs is poised for a breakthrough season. Further, the offense has a strong set of blocking tight ends in Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson who will contribute to the cause. Perhaps Franklin will be right about his line this season.

Who are the breakout players to watch?

Cornerback Kalen King captured the most discussion during spring drills, becoming the true freshman of the 2021 recruiting class to have the most impact. His twin brother Kobe is clicking at linebacker as well. Franklin called the brothers "just so mature" in their first set of spring drills.

At linebacker, Curtis Jacobs will bring an athleticism the defense lacked last season. And defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, a veteran transfer from Temple, could be the biggest player from the portal. Ebiketie has All-Big Ten potential.

Penn State on Saturday will hold its first in-person football media day since 2019. Stay tuned all afternoon for updates from Beaver Stadium.

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