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Predictions for Penn State's Starting Lineup in 2021

Who will start for the Nittany Lions at Wisconsin on Sept. 4? Here's our forecast.

Penn State's depth chart features stars and storylines, anchors and newcomers, certainties and question marks ahead of the season-opener Sept. 4 against Wisconsin.

Sean Clifford enters his third year as Penn State's starting quarterback, leading an offense that returns plenty of experience. Nine starters are back, in addition to five additional offensive players who have starting experience.

The primary losses were tight end Pat Freiermuth, who played in just four games, and offensive linemen Will Fries and Michal Menet. Otherwise, this is a promising offense, particularly if it can internalize coordinator Mike Yurcich's changes before heading to Madison.

Meanwhile, the defense brings back seven starters, notably safety Jaquan Brisker and linebacker Brandon Smith, but carries some question marks on the front line. It also needs to lay to rest last season's 27.7 points-against average that was the highest under coordinator Brent Pry at Penn State.

With two weeks before the opener, Penn State looks pretty locked into most starting roles. Here's a pick for the starting 22 that Penn State will unveil at Wisconsin.

Offense

Left tackle Rasheed Walker: A three-year starter, Walker is among the top returning linemen in the Big Ten and an early target of NFL draft boards. Franklin has said Walker's refreshed attitude was quite evident during spring drills, which Walker said translated to his most productive offseason yet.

Left guard Des Holmes: The redshirt junior, who played in four games last season, was limited during spring but is the most experienced player at the position. Still, this remains the most competitive offensive spot remaining, with Harvard transfer Eric Wilson and Anthony Whigan in the mix.

Center Mike Miranda: Among Penn State's most versatile linemen, Miranda was second-team All-Big Ten last season at left guard. He has made 17 starts at guard and shifts to center this season. Miranda said he became a better player alongside Menet in 2020 and is ready for the transition.

Right guard Juice Scruggs: The redshirt sophomore played better and better last season, asserting himself as one of Penn State's most physical linemen. Scruggs is exceptionally athletic for his size (6-3, 302) and is a lineman to watch for a Big Ten breakout season.

Right tackle Caedan Wallace: He stepped into the lineup last season, starting seven of nine games, and gives Penn State's line the bookend tackles it needs. Line coach Phil Trautwein says boldly that Wallace "may be the best offensive lineman to play here in a long time."

Tight end Brenton Strange: After Pat Freiermuth's season ended, Strange emerged quickly as a potential successor. The 6-3 tight end caught 17 passes, two for touchdowns, and blocked well in the run game. With Strange and Theo Johnson at the spot, Yurcich could take advantage of this richly talented position and employ two-tight-end formations often.

Running back Noah Cain: Though he played just one series in 2020, Cain has repositioned himself as the starting back to beat. Cain pronounced himself "100 percent" early in training camp and has looked like a more mature version of himself in training camp, running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider said. Cain toplines what might be the best group of backs in the Big Ten, if not the country. One newcomer to watch: Baylor transfer John Lovett, who could give Penn State's backfield the "extra gear" Franklin says it needs.

Wide receiver Jahan Dotson: The fourth-year starter returns after leading the Big Ten in receiving yards last season. He also transformed himself into a big-play receiver, catching six passes of 36 yards or longer. Of Penn State's five pass plays of 60+ yards, Dotson had four. He's definitely the home-run threat of Penn State's offense.

Wide receiver Parker Washington: A freshman standout who turned one of every six receptions he made into a touchdown. Washington returns as a strong complementary presence to Dotson. Actually, don't be surprised if Washington leads Penn State in catches this season.

Wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith: The third receiver spot is up for grabs, with Lambert-Smith and Cam Sullivan-Brown likely getting the most reps. Lambert-Smith worked his way into the rotation, starting one game with Washington, and growing quickly into the role. Young receivers Malick Meiga and Jadin Dottin will give Penn State a deep and intriguing rotation.

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Quarterback Sean Clifford: Last season was frustrating for Clifford, whose touchdown/interception rate slide to 16/9 and who also fumbled twice. If Clifford can sharply cut the turnovers and become a more precise passer, he could deliver a breakthrough senior year. He sounds ready.

Defense

Defensive end Nick Tarburton: With Adisa Isaac likely out for the season, Penn State lost another significant contributor (13 tackles, 1.5 sacks) from a line that will change plenty from last season. Tarburton, who has confronted his fair share of injuries in college, steps into an even bigger role now. Pry said Tarburton is ready for the next step, a key stamp of approval for the veteran. Linebacker Jesse Luketa leads a contingent of positional newcomers who have to contribute as well.

Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher: He's the heartbeat of Penn State's defense, particularly since fellow tackle Antonio Shelton and safety Lamont Wade moved on. Mustipher will set the emotional tone and be the technical voice. He's also primed to become an interior force, coming off an All-Big Ten season in which he made 35 tackles.

Defensive tackle Fred Hansard: Hansard will get most of the snaps alongside Mustipher, though Hakeem Beamon and transfer lineman Derrick Tangelo will figure into the rotation. Hansard is another player ready to assume a larger role, particularly if he can get into the backfield consistently.

Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie: The Temple transfer made a remarkable transition during spring drills that went beyond assimilation. Ebiketie showed the coaches that he's ready to be a Big Ten starter. He also picked up Penn State's system quickly, Pry said, underscoring his veteran status. Smith Vilbert and Zuriah Fisher are young players who could emerge here as well.

Linebacker Curtis Jacobs: Franklin said that Jacobs brings exceptional athleticism to the Sam spot, which requires the ability to track down backs and cover tight ends. He will replace Brandon Smith at this position, allowing Penn State to put its two best linebackers on the field together.

Linebacker Ellis Brooks: As the returning starter inside, Brooks led the Lions in tackles last season (60) and made some strong plays. He needs to work on his positioning but should be better.

Linebacker Brandon Smith: Following his gradual improvement through 2020 and the offseason position switch, Smith is one of the defense's top players to watch. He'll be playing the Will spot, a box-linebacker position that favors his fierce tackling skills. He's also a budding star nationally, having signed an NIL deal with the high-profile agency Roc Nation Sports.

Cornerback Joey Porter, Jr.: A third-team all-conference pick, Porter was Penn State's breakout young defensive player last year. He went from backup as a true freshman to the team's most consistent cornerback in 2020. Another promising freshman will follow him, as Kalen King promises to see plenty of playing time.

Safety Jaquan Brisker: The senior is considered among the nation's top returning safeties, one who can build a significant NFL draft resume. Brisker, nominated for multiple national player-of-the-year awards, is exceptional against the run and can cover plenty of field in the secondary.

Safety Ji'Ayir Brown: A fellow Lackawanna College graduate with Brisker, Brown has the inside track to replace Wade. Brown's playing time increased last season until he essentially became the third safety. He and Brisker should work well together. Veteran safety Jonathan Sutherland, redshirt freshman Tyler Rudolph and former cornerback Keaton Ellis will have a say about this position as well, giving what Franklin called a core of dependable players.

Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields: Limited to three games last season because of injury, Castro-Fields returned to provide a major boost to Penn State's defense. He and Porter could become the Big Ten's top cornerback duo through their combination of coverage skills and experience. Transfer cornerback Johnny Dixon looks to make an impact as well.

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