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The Surprise Stars of Penn State's Season

The Lions have had some unexpected hits in their 5-0 start. Let's meet a few.

Penn State has built its 5-0 start on two impressive wins, a freshman-inspired run game, a ball-charging secondary and a few revelations.

Fans knew Penn State would be young this season, particularly on a defense that lost six starters to the NFL. But they might not have expected to see some of the Lions who have blossomed through the season's first five games.

Here, then, is a look at some of the surprising stars of Penn State's start.

Olu Fashanu

The left tackle played extremely well in the Outback Bowl, hinting at bright future at a position of need for 2022. But Fashanu has exceeded all expectations.

Through the first three games, Fashanu (6-6, 320) was the Big Ten's highest-graded tackle, according to Pro Football Focus, which recorded him with allowing no quarterback pressures. That streak ended recently, but Fashanu has been a rock on quarterback Sean Clifford's left side along with guard Landon Tengwall.

Though he's a first-year starter, Fashanu is a third-year player, meaning he'll be draft-eligible next season. If he continues on his current arc, Fashanu might be a one-and-done starter at left tackle for the Lions.

Brenton Strange

Penn State's most-improved player has emerged as Penn State's most surprising downfield threat. He's averaging a team-high 15.4 yards per catch, topped by his 67-yard score against Purdue, and a team-high four touchdowns.

As Clifford said, Strange loves to leap defenders, which he demonstrated again vs. Northwestern. Plus, he has become a much better blocker at the line of scrimmage.

Since Penn State has had injury issues at tight end, Strange's rise has been even more consequential. Now, the Lions need to target him more: Clifford threw to Strange once against Northwestern. It resulted in a touchdown.

Chop Robinson

That Robinson is thriving should be no surprise. He was a 4-star recruit and the top-ranked prospect in Maryland in 2021. But how Robinson is thriving deserves notice.

Robinson played outside linebacker at Maryland last season before transferring to Penn State, where he shifted to end. He has split the position with Nick Tarburton, injecting a much-needed dose of pass-rush skills into the Lions' defense.

Though he has one sack, Robinson jams passers and alters throwing lanes. He is Penn State's best pass-rusher and has become the disruptive presence coach James Franklin sought when pursuing him in the transfer portal.

Ji'Ayir Brown

As with Robinson, Brown's success is no surprise. He's a returning all-Big Ten safety who tied for the national lead with six interceptions last season. But Penn State has employed him in so many more creative ways this season, turning Brown into a multi-tool player.

Brown is blitzing from the line of scrimmage, playing a linebackeresque role in the defense's '"Prowler" package and also performing as an all-conference safety. Before the season, Brown said one of his goals was to get a sack. He did, along with 2.5 tackles and four quarterback hurries (tied with Adisa Isaac for the team lead).

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz noticed Brown almost immediately last December and called him one of the most versatile players he had seen. It's no surprise Diaz has turned Brown loose this season.

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Barney Amor

Everything about the punter's season is surprising — including its mere existence. Had Colgate not canceled its 2020 season because of COVID, Amor likely would be employed using one of the two degrees (in sociology and educational studies) he earned from Colgate.

Instead, Amor transferred to Penn State as a walk-on in 2021, earned the starting role and a scholarship in 2022 and now is among the most weaponized punters in the country. He leads the nation in punts inside the 10-yard line (12 of 23) and ranks among the top 15 nationally in net punting.

Because of Amor, Penn State has a huge field-position advantage over its opponents and actually can be aggressive punting the ball. It's an unsung aspect of the Lions' 5-0 start.

Penn State returns to action Oct. 15 at Michigan. Kickoff is at noon ET on Fox.

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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.