STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — To break up the monotony of quarantine, Sean Clifford played catch with a familiar receiver all summer.
Unfortunately for Penn State’s quarterback, that target — his little brother Liam, a Penn State commit — won’t suit up for the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions for at least another year.
Given that Clifford’s current teammates were spread out around the country, it wasn’t an ideal setup for a second-year starter trying to get to know new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s playbook. Still, Clifford wasn’t the only Nittany Lions player trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“Obviously, I have trust and I know, I’ve seen it on the field how hard everybody has been working away from the facility,” Clifford said. “But football is a team game and you need to get everybody together and the chemistry needs to be there.”
The Nittany Lions have usually found it. Despite heavy coaching turnover, they’ve had three 10-win regular seasons in four years, giving themselves a shot at the College Football Playoff. They plan plan to challenge for Big Ten supremacy again in this delayed season.
“Last year, it wasn’t 10 or 15 plays that we missed, it was one or two plays here and there,” Clifford said. “We all know the talent that we have.”
Enter Ciarrocca, the team’s third OC in four seasons. Last year under Ricky Rahne, Penn State finished as the 15th-ranked scoring offense in Clifford’s first year as the starter. Clifford expects Ciarrocca to continue his development.
Although they weren’t able to meet face-to-face until recently, Clifford and Ciarrocca have already struck up a productive relationship. They’re both inspired by nailing little details and intrigued by Penn State’s big-play ability.
While downfield threat KJ Hamler departed for the NFL, the Nittany Lions return a talented trio of skill players in tight end Pat Freiermuth, receiver Jahan Dotson and running back Journey Brown. The three combined for 47 touches that went for 12 or more yards last season.
“When you watch us, you say they take care of the ball, they execute at a really high level, their details are tremendous, and these guys are always attacking and they’re relentless,” Ciarrocca said.
IN THE TRENCHES
Fifth-year center Michael Menet expects results from the team’s ground-and-pound approach.
“It gives the O-line a sense of pride when you get back to the locker room after a game and you have a couple hundred rushing yards,” Menet said.
He’s not exaggerating.
The Nittany Lions have pounded out 200-plus rushing yards 16 times since Menet made his first appearance in 2017. The front five has grown since then and will likely be among the conference’s best with starters returning at every spot, including tackles Rasheed Walker and Will Fries.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has plans for how to make up for star Micah Parsons’ production after the linebacker opted out of playing this season.
Parsons registered 109 tackles, five sacks and forced four fumbles last year. Expect to see a few different players get opportunities, namely Brandon Smith, who adds value as an edge rusher with his speed and 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame.
“We’ve got a lot of flexibility in the room. We’ve got several guys playing multiple positions,” Pry said. “We’ve got a bunch of hungry guys that are ready to make people forget No. 11, at least somewhat.”
Penn State players began daily coronavirus antigen testing on Sept. 30 as part of the Big Ten’s protocols.
The university, meanwhile, has continued to randomly test 1% of its population daily. As of Oct. 14, Penn State had randomly tested 25,383 people with 286 positive cases. Another 18,167 who had experienced symptoms were tested, with 3,069 positive cases.
Penn State would have traveled to Virginia Tech on Sept. 12 for the first meeting between the programs. That game has not been rescheduled.
Games against Nevada and San Jose State were also wiped out for now as Penn State opens at Indiana on Oct. 24 before hosting No. 6 Ohio State on Oct. 31.