Penn State football mailbag: Is the offense for real? Ranking the RBs & more

Patrick Burns

First off, a big thank you to everyone who sent in questions.

In the future, the plan is to ask for questions after each game on either Saturday night or Sunday morning, but feel free to shoot me questions in the comment sections of any articles, or over on Twitter (@PatrickBurns_) at any point during the week.

Without further ado, let's get into it.

Do you think this game helped with the idea of using a four [running] back rotation, or do you think it would be better to narrow it down?

If there's any clarity in this backfield, it's that all four guys deserve to play.

I was totally against the idea of a four-running back rotation entering the game, but I don't think Penn State has any other option at this point.

What is your ranking of the four running backs?

1A) Journey Brown

1B) Ricky Slade

1C) Noah Cain

1D) Devyn Ford

The margins between each player are so slim, and there's an argument to be made for all four guys.

I'm a big fan of Journey Brown. He's looked like a complete running back through the early part of the season, which is a testament to how far he's come since arriving on campus.

With that said, I still don't think we've seen the best version of Ricky Slade, and I have a feeling that it's coming within the next couple weeks. Even if one of those guys breaks out and separates from the rest of the pack, Noah Cain is easily the team's best between-the-tackles option and needs a role in short-yardage situations.

Then there's Devyn Ford, and putting him fourth feels harsh because he's ridiculously elusive and still deserves his fair share of snaps, but that's just the reality of this backfield right now.

Justin Shorter seems to have the physical gifts to be an All-American level player. Assuming he's healthy what needs to happen for him to hit that level before the season ends?

Shorter hasn't been used a ton  he has just seven catches for 88 yards this season  but he's been really solid.

For him to reach that level it really comes down to three things: health, confidence and building rapport with Sean Clifford.

Saying that a player is performing well because he's confident is the one of the biggest cliches in the book, but multiple players have emphasized that Shorter's game took off this offseason once he finally started to trust himself, so it really seems to be the case with him.

© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Where Shorter might provide the most value to Penn State going forward is in contested situations and on third down.

The Nittany Lions have really lacked a go-to option on first down ever since DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki graduated. 

Shorter is obviously a different kind of player than those two, but Penn State doesn't have another receiver with his frame and skillset. If his injury doesn't turn out to be a multi-week ordeal, I think Shorter could be in for a big second half of the season.

How would you compare Sean Clifford's quarterback style to Trace McSorley's?

I'm not going to sit here and say that Clifford's competitiveness and intangibles are on the same level as McSorley's, but I do believe that he possesses some of the same traits that made McSorley such a great college quarterback. It's very clear after last Friday that this team loves to play for Clifford, and he was absolutely beaming when speaking with the media after the game.

As for on the field, I'm hesitant to make any detailed comparisons because I'm no Lincoln Riley when it comes to analyzing quarterbacks and we've still only got a few games to draw from for Clifford.

McSorley was obviously a more natural runner than Clifford, with the latter seemingly being a more natural passer. I'd probably give the edge in arm strength to Clifford, as well. McSorley seemed to possess a lot more awareness in the pocket, but that's something that comes with experience and Clifford looked extremely comfortable evading pressure and making things happen with his feet against Maryland.

I'll re-answer this question in a later mailbag once I have a better understanding of who exactly Clifford is as a quarterback. It might not take that much longer because I think we'll learn a ton about him once the toughest part of the schedule starts next week.

How do you feel about the offense moving forward? Was this a sign of things to come or do you think this was a one-hit-wonder (I guess what I'm asking is this the 2016 Minnesota game for the offense this year)?

The offense is probably as talented as it showed last Friday so I don't believe that performance was a one-hit wonder, but the schedule is about to get very tough, very fast, and a showing like that makes it easy to forget just how young this team is.

The 2016 comparison is an interesting one because the freakish specimen that is Saquon Barkley aside, I believe there's a similar level of pure talent with this year's offense.

That said, I don't think this crop of players is as far along in its development as the group that won a Big Ten title.

Sometimes all it takes is one game or even one half to alter the trajectory of a program, though, as we learned a couple years ago.

How will Penn State fare against the best such as Ohio State and Wisconsin?

While I'm confident that Penn State would match up well against Wisconsin if both teams met in the Big Ten Championship, I still have the Nittany Lions losing to Ohio State and I think the Buckeyes are a tier ahead of both teams.

All of their defensive problems from last year seems to be sorted. Justin Fields is most likely the real deal. Chase Young might be the best defensive player in the country.

Speaking of which...

Not to think ahead but—what should be Penn State’s plan for stopping the force that is Chase Young?

Well, for one, don't run in his general direction on fourth-and-5 with the game on the line.

Penn State couldn't stop Young last year and he's taken a huge step forward since then. He's somehow even more athletic and to top it off, his motor is on another level this season.

If I knew how to stop him, I'd probably be on the shortlist for NFL coaching jobs because apparently no college coach knows how to. Young has at least one sack in every single game this season and 14 sacks in his last nine games.

chase young
© Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

A general guideline is just to make sure that he doesn't get into space because of how athletic he is, and the rest of Ohio State's defensive line is good enough that it'll take advantage of mismatches if you decide to slide a guard over to help. Another option is using Pat Freiermuth as a blocker, but that would require taking away one of the Nittany Lions' own mismatches in the passing game, and if they opted to use some more 12 personnel instead, that would require taking a playmaking receiver off the field.

Young, of course, presents the biggest mismatch of all against Will Fries, as we saw last year, and a lot can happen between now and late-November but I'd be surprised if Penn State found a way to contain him.

Is anyone going to take the Rutgers job if Greg Schiano turns them down?

They need to put the full-court press on Schiano.

The only reason that anyone thinks there's potential in that opening is because of the job that Schiano did in New Brunswick close to a decade ago.

Nowadays, they're competing with MAC schools for recruits as often as they are with other Big Ten programs.

If they can't get Schiano, I doubt they can afford to gamble on another first-time coach like Chris Ash. Whoever they bring in needs to know how to build a culture and win with less talent because it's going to be at least a few years before they can compete with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan for recruits in their own backyard.

Was the Maryland game Ricky Rahne's best showing as Penn State's offensive coordinator? If not, it had to be pretty darn close.

I think so. The only other game you could really argue was the Fiesta Bowl in 2018.

How did you feel about Micah Parsons' targeting call? I thought it was targeting personally.

It was 100 percent targeting. Just a really dumb play. Better to learn that lesson during a 59-0 blowout than later in the season against Ohio State, though.

What individual player do you think had the best defensive performance Friday night?

Probably Ellis Brooks, but Jesse Luketa and Tariq Castro-Fields deserve a ton of praise too.

Luketa turned in a starter-caliber performance in relief of Parsons, and James Franklin said Tuesday that Brooks is essentially splitting reps one-to-one with Jan Johnson. 

That's well-deserved, in my opinion, even though I believe Johnson has been much better than most have given him credit for.

Comments (3)
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1Penn TDClub
1Penn TDClub

Thanks! Looking forward to this weekends game!


Sucks i have to ask my questions drunk (Saturday after the game) or hungover (Sunday morning).


Thank you for the mailbag responses Pat! I really like all 4 RB’s and can’t disagree. I really hope they use Noah Cain more between the tackles as schedule only gets tougher