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Penn State's 'Critical' Offseason Continues into Spring Practice

Penn State begins spring football drills March 15. Here's what's on the team's to-do list.

In January, after he had time to process the 2020 football season, Penn State coach James Franklin said his team faced a "critical" offseason. At the very least, it has been busy.

Penn State has welcomed three new assistant coaches and five transfer players while bidding farewell to multiple transfers, four of whom played significant roles last year.

The Nittany Lions are scheduled to begin spring drills March 15, with a potential Blue-White Game still to be announced. If the game is held, some fans could return to Beaver Stadium, as Pennsylvania has opened outdoor venues to limited crowds.

Penn State has a lot of ground to cover this spring as it seeks to prove 2020's 4-5 record was an outlier. What are some of the goals this spring? Here's a practice primer.

Meet the new coaches

Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will get the benefit of actual spring practices that former coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca didn't have last year. So will new safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter, who arrived in late February.

Tight ends coach Ty Howle was on staff last season as an offensive analyst, so his transition should be much smoother.

Meet the new players

Penn State brought in five transfer players with significant experience. A few should compete for playing time, or starting spots, quickly.

  • Cornerback Johnny Dixon (South Carolina): The first player to announce his transfer plans, Dixon started nine games in two seasons at South Carolina.
  • Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (Temple): He was second-team all-conference last season, making 8.5 tackles for loss in six games.
  • Running back John Lovett (Baylor): Lovett started 20 games at Baylor, averaging 5.1 yards per carry in his career.
  • Defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo (Duke): Tangelo was a four-year player for the Blue Devils.
  • Offensive lineman Eric Wilson (Harvard): A graduate transfer, Wilson was all-Ivy League in 2019 but did not play last season, as the Ivy canceled football.

Key losses

  • Defensive tackle Antonio Shelton: Made 22 starts over three seasons. Transferred to Florida.
  • Offensive lineman CJ Thorpe: Started eight games at guard last season. 
  • Quarterback Will Levis: Was the primary backup to Sean Clifford, making two career starts. Transferred to Kentucky.
  • Quarterback Micah Bowens: Did not play last year but added position depth. Transferred to Oklahoma.
  • Defensive tackle Judge Culpepper: Played in nine games last season. Transferred to Toledo.
  • Tight end Zack Kuntz: Played sparingly at Penn State.

The big issues

1. Another new offense?

Sean Clifford, a two-year starting quarterback, will be working with his third offensive coordinator in as many years. That has to be exhausting. At least this spring, Clifford and Yurcich will be on the field together instead of trying to install their offense via video chat. That didn't go so well last year for Clifford and Ciarrocca.

Yurcich's main work with Clifford this spring likely will involve restoring the fundamentals (footwork, eye position, receiver progressions) to his game. Clifford struggled with those components last year, particularly when plays dissolved. As a result, Ciarrocca, Clifford and Levis relied too much on the quarterback run.

2. Linebacker play

Penn State's defense delivered its share of shaky moments last season, notably by allowing some clean pockets for quarterbacks, blowing coverages on big plays and missing tackles. The latter requires particular attention this spring, especially among the linebackers.

Micah Parsons compensated for a lot of mistakes and whiffs during his two seasons at Penn State. Without him, the defense lacked a sweeper at linebacker. Further, this group spent too much time out of position or getting juked. Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa led the team in tackles, combining for 119, but would agree they could have been better.

"You have to limit explosive plays, probably more so now than ever," Franklin said in January. "One of the ways you do that is by tackling well. We did not tackle as well last year as we have. That has shown up in previous years, but as the season has gone on, we've gotten better. But tackling is going to be a big part of that."

3. Replacing the defensive ends

Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney are headed to the NFL, leaving two starting jobs open. Normally, this is a plug-and-play opportunity for Penn State. But the group is a bit thin on experience.

Adisa Isaac, who played in all nine games last year, looks like a contender at one spot. Behind him, the Lions don't have many veterans. As a result, watch for Ebiketie, the Temple transfer, to challenge for a starting spot.

4. Interior linemen

The offensive line is in good shape at tackle, with Rasheed Walker and Caeden Wallace returning. Position coach Phil Trautwein, however, has some shifting to do inside, where center Michal Menet and guards Will Fries and Thorpe have departed.

Mike Miranda, who started all nine games at guard, could move to center, thus opening a spot for Juice Scruggs. Des Holmes, Sal Wormley and Anthony Whighan will be important players to watch this spring for the line.

5. Raising the receivers

Receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield presided over a resurgent group last season, one that took Jahan Dotson to his next level and found future standouts in Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith.

Yurcich's offenses can make stars of receivers quickly. At Oklahoma State in 2017, Yurcich helped guide receivers James Washington and Marcell Ateman to 1,000-yard seasons. In 2019, Ohio State's Chris Olave and K.J. Hill combined for 22 touchdown receptions under Yurcich.

Dotson returns as one of the Big Ten's top receivers, a player who figures to benefit greatly from Yurcich's ability to get his wideouts into open space. Dotson and Clifford already have a rapport. Now it's time for them to transfer that to Yurcich's offense.

Important dates

March 15: Spring practice begins

March 25: Penn State Pro Day

TBA: Blue-White Game

April 29-May 1: NFL Draft

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