Opportunity is NOWHERE
Depending on how you read that word NOWHERE, you probably clicked on this article for two different reasons. You could have read that as “Opportunity is nowhere”, if you believe that the opportunity for Big Ten and even National Championships have come and gone for head coach James Franklin and Penn State. Or you could have read it as “Opportunity is now here”, if you believe Penn State, with COVID-19 recruiting restrictions finally past them, are turning into the well-oiled recruiting machine that it has aspired to be and you believe recruiting is a major factor in college football success (the latter is true by the way). Either way, you could be right.
Regardless of where you believe the program is, there is a subtle but important reminder that Penn State’s 2016 B1G Championship is over five years old. Ohio State has since dominated the Big Ten East and this year even Jim Harbaugh and his Michigan Wolverines have (finally) won the Big Ten Championship. In fact, the Big Ten East now holds the record for the most different teams to make the College Football Playoff (Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan). Penn State is noticeably missing.
There are a lot of reasons or perhaps excuses for why Penn State hasn’t reached the pinnacle of college football. It’s easy to point to a few specific games or even a few specific plays that could have spring-boarded Penn State into the College Football Playoff. Who knows? If Penn State is able to appear in the College Football Playoff perhaps the program by 2022 would have already taken that next step from great to elite that James Franklin will always be remembered for. But maybe it wouldn’t have mattered either. An appearance in the College Football Playoff doesn’t mean eternal glory. Ask Florida State, Washington, and Michigan State. Even winning a national championship doesn’t mean your program is set up for an Alabama-like dynasty, ask LSU.
But as we look back five years since the Big Ten Championship it’s easy to see numerous misfires especially in 2017 and 2018 where Penn State may have had the best team in the Big Ten, at least on paper. Since then it has been death by a thousand cuts as it has seen Ohio State among others begin to separate once again. Constant turnover in the offensive coaching room has led to Penn State’s offense looks lost at times. Couple that with the good, but not great recruiting classes sprinkled in with a few misses on some top tier prospects and a failure to develop offensive linemen, and it’s easy to see where things have begun to go downhill. COVID-19 took away Franklin’s best recruiting weapon, on-campus visits where he could pitch the academic accolades to recruits’ parents, the tight-knit community to recruits’ guardians, and the exceptional brand of football to recruits. Couple And some of the best recruits they have brought in over the past couple years haven’t shined as bright as some have hoped.
Take Penn State’s five best prospects in the 2019 recruiting class. Linebacker Brandon Smith has declared early for the NFL Draft after a productive, but not incredible career at Penn State. Running back Devyn Ford has failed to separate himself as a running back or as a returner especially when facing Power Five opposition. Offensive linemen, Caedan Wallace, who was listed as a guard when recruited, has struggled to transition to offensive tackle at times. Defensive end, Adisa Isaac, unfortunately didn’t play this season due to a season-ending injury. Running Back Noah Cain hasn’t looked himself since he took the running back room over in 2019 before being banged up late in the season and suffering a season-ending injury on the first drive of the 2020 season.
The 2020 class has seen perhaps more impact than the 2019 class, with LB Curtis Jacobs, TE Theo Johnson, and WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith being key contributors in 2021, but safety Enzo Jennings, the 135th recruit in the class, has since entered the transfer portal. Although the defensive line prospects have lived up to the billing, the offensive line recruits have been disappointing to say the least.
But things at least appear to be heading towards more favorable waters. In the summer, Penn State jumped out to the No.1 recruiting class in the nation for the 2022 cycle after a fury of commits. Nobody thought they would stay at No.1 when it was all said and done, but the class stayed mostly together all the way to early-signing day. Penn State currently has the 6th best class in the country and the 2nd best in the B1G behind only Ohio State. Perhaps most importantly to some, Penn State has finally signed a top QB prospect in five star QB Drew Allar, from Ohio no less. Additionally, they signed the No.1 RB in Nick Singleton, who also won the National Gatorade Player of the Year.
There is no question that losing defensive coordinator Brent Pry to Virginia Tech is going to leave a hole. Pry was not only Franklin’s No.2, but he was also part of Franklin and Franklin’s family’s support system. That being said, Penn State acted swiftly to scoop up an experienced and vibrant defensive coordinator in Manny Diaz. Diaz inherits one of the best defenses in the country. He also was able to retain potentially a four-time Captain in LB Jonathan Sutherland, two-year starter, corner Joey Porter, Jr., and talented safety, Ji’Ayir Brown, who leads the team in interceptions.
On the offensive side of the ball, for the first time in three years, Penn State will have the same offensive coordinator for a second straight season, with Mike Yurcich coming back. Yurcich didn’t pass the blame on anyone when speaking to the media about the offense’s shortcomings, saying he will fix the offense or “die trying”. Yurcich, will also have his commander of the offense back, QB Sean Clifford, for Clifford’s sixth season. Clifford, who maybe doesn’t have the same ceiling as incoming freshman Allar, but seems excited to lead, mentor, and teach the young QB corps.
And although not impressive in 2021, the running back room will once again be stacked with numerous blue-chip running backs, even if one or two transfer this offseason. Will they find a homerun hitter in Singleton? At receiver, they will have to replace the sensational WR Jahan Dotson, but WR Parker Washington and Lambert-Smith have shown flashes, plus they just secured a transfer from Western Kentucky’s WR Mitch Tinsley, who caught over 80 passes and racked up over 1400 yards. You know where the tight end room stands, and you know where the offensive line room stands. One is promising and exciting yet not to expectation and the other one has been a disappointment.
Yet, the question still remains. It’s been five years since that rollercoaster ride of 2016 and everyone is beginning to wonder if Penn State only had one ticket to ride or if Penn State can get back to that level of play and perhaps stay there. It doesn’t take Penn State beating Ohio State and Michigan every year, but it does take Penn State beating Ohio State and Michigan some years and it does take Penn State handling the Illinois-like teams every year.
Who knows what will happen, but the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day seems as good as any of a beginning to tell that story.
Opportunity is NOWHERE