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Penn State Readies for Another Uncommon Senior Day

With a large group of seniors eligible to return and a big recruiting class, Penn State faces a complex roster puzzle.

Penn State hosts Rutgers on Saturday for what will be a second consecutive uncommon Senior Day. Coach James Franklin even said that "it's kind of a mess to predict" what the roster will look like until after the season.

Here's what Beaver Stadium looked like for Senior Day 2020, when the Lions sang the alma mater amid empty stands after defeating Michigan State 39-24.

This year's Senior Day promises to be just as unique because of the unknowns surrounding the senior class. All but five scholarship players on Penn State's roster can return for 2022, since the NCAA granted everyone an extra season of eligibility because of COVID-19.

That certainly doesn't mean those who are eligible will return. Here's how Penn State addresses the extra season of eligibility, according to the football media guide:

Penn State Athletics chose to advance classes as though 2020-21 was a normal year of eligibility. Student-athletes listed as redshirt freshmen in 2021-22 did not officially redshirt in 2020-21 but would have in any other normal year. Extra years of eligibility will be marked on the back end of student-athletes’ careers (a + symbol will be added on the end of Sr. to indicate the extra year of eligibility being used.

As noted, five players are classified as Senior+, meaning their eligibility is exhausted:

  • Safety Jaquan Brisker
  • Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields
  • Running back John Lovett
  • Defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo
  • Receiver Benjamin Wilson

Beyond them, 25 players who are listed as seniors or redshirt seniors are eligible to return. Here are the key players from that group:

  • Linebacker Ellis Brooks
  • Safety Ji'Ayir Brown
  • Quarterback Sean Clifford
  • Receiver Jahan Dotson
  • Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie
  • Defensive lineman Fred Hansard
  • Safety/special teams player Drew Hartlaub
  • Offensive lineman Des Holmes
  • Defensive end Jesse Luketa
  • Offensive lineman Mike Miranda
  • Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher
  • Kicker Jake Pinegar
  • Kicker Jordan Stout
  • Receiver Cam Sullivan-Brown
  • Safety Jonathan Sutherland
  • Offensive lineman Anthony Whigan
  • Offensive lineman Eric Wilson

Not all are scholarship players, and the list does not include draft-eligible underclassmen such as running backs Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, cornerback Joey Porter Jr., linebacker Brandon Smith and offensive linemen Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace.

But those seniors, and Penn State, have some reflecting to do over the next few months. Penn State has a huge recruiting class (with 25 commits) arriving in 2022 and needs room under the 85-scholarship limit. So not everyone who might want to return will be guaranteed a spot.

The biggest question is Clifford, who has not yet discussed his plans publicly. The quarterback, set to make his 29th start Saturday, will be 24 next summer. He could break every Penn State career passing record as a four-year starter and have another chance to play with his brother Liam. Clifford has never thrown a pass to his brother as part of a high school or college team.

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Dotson and Ebiketie are most likely to enter the 2022 NFL Draft. Dotson is projected as a first-round pick, and Ebiketie has played his way into at least a Day 2 selection.

Among the fourth-year seniors, Brown, Luketa, Mustipher, Pinegar, Stout and Eric Wilson are interesting players. Brown could use the Brisker model, returning to climb draft boards. Luketa, with a full year at defensive end, could play himself into an NFL role.

Mustipher might want to rehab in college and return for a hopefully healthy season. Wilson could be a second-year starter, and Pinegar could reclaim the starting kicker's role after what amounted to a redshirt season (assuming Stout doesn't return).

The pool of fifth-year seniors includes key players in Brooks, Hartlaub (a terrific special teams gunner), Miranda, Stout and long-snapper Stoll.

Franklin said that some players may participate in Senior Day activities but not return and vice versa. Those conversations will continue after the season.

"It’s just kind of a mess to predict," Franklin said. "You can’t use any of the old data that you’ve studied over the last 10 years to make predictions. It’s really challenging. ...

"We're going to make [Senior Day] special for these guys, but it’s not as clean as I’d like it to be for you guys to be able to know who’s coming back and who’s not. I don’t think Senior Day necessarily represents that anymore, at least until we get through this COVID period."

Penn State hosts Rutgers at noon Saturday on Big Ten Network.

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