Penn State football is entering a new phase as James Franklin will no longer have record-setting quarterback Trace McSorley running the offense. Miles Sanders, the second leading rusher in the Big Ten, declared for the NFL Draft, leaving rising sophomore Ricky Slade as the most experienced running back on the team.
Quarterbacks Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford will battle for the starting spot throughout the spring and fall camps as both players have shown the ability to lead the offense, but lack the meaningful reps in a real game. Sanders’ departure to the NFL might be addition by subtraction as Franklin brings in the nation’s top running back duo in Noah Cain and Devyn Ford. Notre Dame transfer CJ Holmes is eligible to play in 2019, giving offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne one of the best backfields in the Big Ten.
The offensive line took a hit in the offseason when tackle Ryan Bates and guard Connor McGovern both declared for the NFL Draft, while backup tackle Sterling Jenkins transferred to Duquesne. Guard Steven Gonzalez returns for his senior season, but Bates and McGovern were the team’s top offensive linemen in 2018 and they will need to be replaced for the Nittany Lions to have success in 2019.
The emergence of freshman receivers KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson in 2018 gives Franklin a pair of explosive playmakers on the outside that can score from almost anywhere on the field. The duo should help either quarterback out in 2019, especially with the transfer of Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk putting his name in the transfer portal. Many fans expected Johnson to have a breakout season in 2018, but injuries and dropped passes limited the redshirt junior to 25 catches for 352 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson’s size will be missed as Penn State does not have many 6’4″ 225-pound receivers on the roster. Freshman Justin Shorter has Johnson’s size on the perimeter and should breakout in 2019 after a disappointing 2018. Polk’s departure leaves the receiver room without a real veteran presence with the graduation of DeAndre Thompkins, but he has only put his name in the transfer portal and has not officially announced his intention to transfer.
The same goes for defensive back Lamont Wade, who has yet to live up to the lofty expectations when he came to Penn State in 2017. Zech McPhearson and Isaiah Humphries have both officially transferred from Penn State with the latter heading to Cal. The additional transfers of Dae’Lun Darien and Brelin Faison-Walden makes it seven Nittany Lions that have expressed interest to transfer. Defensive linemen Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller both declared for the 2019 NFL Draft, which adds up to 12 players who will leave Penn State before their eligibility is up.
McPhearson, Darien, Humphries and Faison-Walden were all backups, but their departures gives Franklin a problem with depth. Miller is a huge loss as he was one of the conference’s best defensive ends along with Yetur Gross-Matos. Shane Simmons should take Miller’s spot, but has been a bit of a disappointment in his Penn State career. The former top-100 recruit has only one sack in two years and needs to provide the pass rush that Miller provided in 2018.
Antonio Shelton was solid in the defensive linemen rotation and he should receiver more playing time with Givens’ departure. Robert Windsor was disruptive in 2018 from his defensive tackle position and he should continue that in 2019.
It’s never good when a team loses 12 players to either the NFL Draft or transfer, but Franklin has amassed enough talent at Penn State in 2019 to keep the Nittany Lions competitive in the Big Ten East.