Reasons to Be Irrationally Excited About Penn State

Ready to love again? Ready to get hurt again? Here's why you should be buying Penn State in 2021.
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If you're ready to love Penn State football again after the forlorn 2020 season, we're here to help you count the reasons.

Penn State opens the 2021 season Saturday at No. 12 Wisconsin, where it must answer a bunch of questions: Will the new offense be ready? Did quarterback Sean Clifford hit the offseason reset switch? Can the defense avoid giving up 30+ points in five consecutive games?

But you want hope and promise, so let's deliver some. Why be bullish on the Lions? Here are five reasons.

The Nittany Lions really like each other this season

Several players, notably veterans Jahan Dotson, Rasheed Walker and Jordan Stout, called this team the tightest on which they have played. Even if they're trying to massage a message, the sentiment rings differently, especially after the splinters that appeared during the 2020 season.

"Since I've been here, I feel like this is the closest team as far as relationships," said Walker, who is in his fourth year in the program.

"This team is closer than any team I've been a part of," said Dotson, a fourth-year receiver.

"I feel like we're closer than that [2019] team [that went 11-2]," senior safety Jaquan Brisker added.

Franklin was reluctant to compare this team's chemistry to others he has coached, particularly the 2020 group whose team-building opportunities were extremely limited. But Franklin did note that on Monday, their scheduled off day, most players were in the football building together.

"Is it that this team is closer than any team I've been around, or does it just feel magnified after going through what we went through last year?" Franklin asked. "I'm not really sure, and I don't know if it's fair to compare and contrast. But either way, I think we have a very close team, and that's not just the players. That's the staff, that's all of us in this thing together. And that usually results in good things for you."

Sean Clifford is 'just playing ball now'

Safety Jaquan Brisker told reporters in State College recently that he expects Clifford to be "the best quarterback in all of college football," according to Blue-White Illustrated. Bold prediction, yes. But Clifford has made strides this offseason.

Following last season, in which he was sacked 22 times and part of 12 turnovers, Clifford got a fresh voice from offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. His teammates have noticed a tangible difference.

"The biggest area [of Yurcich's impact] I feel like is decision-making," Dotson said. "Coach Yurcich, when he came in, his point of emphasis was, Sean is such a vocal leader, such a great leader on the field, and he felt like Sean had just too much on his plate. He was worrying about too much. And I feel like he’s done a great job this offseason where’s just taken the load off his shoulders and he’s just playing ball now. And that’s how he got here. …. That’s literally how he got here, just playing ball."

Franklin has noticed how Yurcich has coached Clifford aggressively, trying to mirror the stress that the quarterback will face on gamedays. "I think in a lot of ways, that's been good for Sean," Franklin said.

As has the offense that Yurich runs. The belief at Penn State is that Yurcich can coax the best out of Clifford particularly in the game's biggest moments.

"For the most part, everybody in college football, and now the NFL, are all running the same schemes," Franklin said. "It's about how you package them. Mike obviously has had a lot of success in how he packages the plays that pretty much everybody is running.

"Also, there's 4-6 calls a game where you're going to differentiate yourself from others. Statistically, Mike's been able to do that over his career."

QB Ta'Quan Roberson 'opened a lot of eyes' in camp

Redshirt sophomore Ta'Quan Roberson earned the No. 2 spot behind Clifford after taking about 90 percent of the reps there, according to Franklin. And he has shown promise.

Roberson has a long way to go, having played sparsely in just two games over the past two seasons and throwing just one pass. Still, Franklin said that Roberson made gains in training camp. That's important to a program that has just three scholarship quarterbacks and has pinned its 2021 hopes entirely on Clifford.

"He's done some really nice things," Franklin said of Roberson. "He's thrown for a high percentage. For a while there, his [rate of] attempts without and interception was ridiculously high. The ball jumps off his hand. When he's confident pre-snap with what to do, he's very effective post-snap. It's getting him consistently really confident pre-snap with what we're trying to do and why and how. But I think he's opened a lot of eyes this camp, and we'd love to get him some reps where we can, meaningful reps in games."

The secondary will be a major asset

Penn State's defensive backs have the best collection of experience and young talent on the roster. The group has combined to start 54 Power 5 games, with transfers Johnny Dixon (South Carolina) and A.J. Lytton (Florida State) bringing plenty of reps to State College.

Meanwhile, the secondary also boasts some of the top freshmen expected to earn playing time. Cornerback Kalen King has been earning a spot in the rotation since spring drills, and safety Jaylen Reed won praise during training camp. Both are Detroit products: King from Cass Tech, Reed from Martin Luther King Jr. High.

Senior safety Jaquan Brisker is the primary name in the secondary, but cornerbacks Joey Porter Jr. and Tariq Castro-Fields might form the Big Ten's best tandem at that position. Penn State has the ability to play multiple packages using an extra defensive back (including King, Keaton Ellis and Daequan Hardy) and the veterans to rely upon in varied coverages.

With this group, Penn State shouldn't rank ninth in the Big Ten in forcing turnovers.

Arnold Ebiketie could be Penn State's breakout star of 2021

The former all-conference defensive end from Temple could turn into the most important player to join Penn State's roster thi offseason. Ebiketie not only won a starting spot at a position of need but also was a training camp standout.

"One thing about AK, he is extremely fast," Walker said. "When you're blocking someone every day who is that fast, it forces you to have to play faster. I can honestly say that I don't think I'm going to see anybody in the Big Ten that can move like AK."

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