Sean Clifford and Penn State's offense will dictate how the 2022 season will go

Jon Sauber
Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) (TNS)

Penn State's offense was a major letdown compared to expectations in 2021 and will need to rebound for the program to avoid falling into the same .500 level record it has stayed near over the last two seasons.

The group, led by a fourth year starting quarterback with the same offensive coordinator for the first time in his career, will face lowered expectations but a greater need for improvement. We've broken down every offensive position leading up to fall camp, but now it's time to look at the bird's eye view.

Let's take a look at how the Penn State offense can come together during the 2022 season.

Rushing offense: Calling this the focal point of the offense this offseason would be a massive understatement. Penn State head coach James Franklin said time and time again that running the ball successfully was important and the issues surrounding the team's running game were being worked on. The Nittany Lions didn't have a single running back rush for over 100 yards last season. While that's in part because of the running back by committee approach the program takes, it's also because the offense couldn't sustain the rushing attack. Those issues came about for myriad reasons, but all of them will need to be addressed for the run game to improve.

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That starts with the offensive line, which struggled to create holes when offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich decided to run the ball. This season, that should be a different story. All five positions feature players that are more than capable of making those gaps available to the running backs. Olu Fashanu and Caedan Wallace are both capable of blowing up defensive ends and linebackers from their tackle positions thanks to their size, while almost every interior option should be a road grader. Saleem Wormley, Juice Scruggs and Hunter Nourzad should lead the way among the rotation, but size and strength will not be an issue no matter who is in — unlike last season. It would be a surprise if the offensive line is at fault for a faulty running game this year.

Frankly, it would be a surprise if the running backs are to blame either. The Nittany Lions lost Noah Cain to the transfer portal — and ultimately LSU — but gained two very talented running backs to add to the already good position group. Keyvone Lee headlines the returners as a big bruising back who should be able to follow the physical offensive line down the field and break tackles when necessary. The other major contributor should be one of the true freshmen — Nick Singleton. Singleton is the team's most talented running back since Saquon Barkley was on the roster and could make a similar impact. He has the height, weight and speed combination to be an elite back. Between him, Lee and what should be a greatly improved offensive line, there aren't many on-field reasons for Penn State to come up short on the ground again this season.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes while being pressured by Rutgers defensive lineman Aaron Lewis (71) during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Penn State won 28-0. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Passing offense: Despite the consternation over the offense's ability to run the ball, it's still far more likely the passing game will dictate how good the unit will be in 2022. Yurcich's best offenses have had prolific passing attacks that feature, usually, three high end receiving targets, a heavy dose of the screen game and downfield shots to playmakers. The group was lacking in most aspects last season and became heavily dependent on Jahan Dotson, who is now in the NFL after going in the first round of the draft to the Washington Commanders. Growing this season will depend largely on going away from that dependency and becoming a more balanced passing game.

The balance begins with redshirt senior starting quarterback Sean Clifford, who is entering his sixth year with the program and fourth as the starter. He doesn't necessarily need to take a step forward, but he will need to settle into a role as a game manager type quarterback. Clifford doesn't need to be a big time playmaker, rather he needs to find his best weapons and put them in a position to succeed.

That starts with Parker Washington, Mitchell Tinsley and KeAndre Lambert-Smith, along with the team's tight ends. The trio of receivers are all in position to have excellent seasons, with Washington set to take over as the No. 1 target, Tinsley bringing a wealth of experience and Lambert-Smith set to take the next step forward. Clifford's job will be to get those players the ball as often as possible in positions to succeed. That means giving them space to operate and throwing passes that will allow them to make plays in the open field.

The bright side for Clifford is that he should have plenty of time to find those targets. The offensive line protected well last season — matchup against Michigan and its elite pass rushers notwithstanding — and should do so again in 2022. Fashanu is the wildcard of the bunch after only playing in the Outback Bowl, but the upside he showed in that game should give Penn State fans hope. He has a chance to be a very good pass protector and quickly for the Nittany Lions. The group as a whole should give Clifford more than enough opportunity to find his best players on the outside.

Outlook: This is the unit that will decide how good Penn State can be this season. The team will have a solid baseline thanks to its defense but it will need its offense to be greatly improved to reach double digit wins. The emphasis on the running game will draw much of the attention but at the end of the day it's Clifford and the passing game that will decide the offense's — and the team's — ceiling.

If he takes control of the unit and is able to distribute passes accurately and on time to his receivers then the team will be able to take the next step forward in his final year on campus. If not, then the outlook is much gloomier, with another year near .500 not out of the question.

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