SAUBER: Here are 5 storylines to watch as Penn State football begins spring practice
Monday is set to be the beginning of one of the more unique spring practice periods since James Franklin took over as Penn State's head football coach in 2014.
It will be the first time the program has held a spring practice since 2019, after last year's practices were canceled due to the pandemic. That means plenty of Nittany Lions have never participated in spring ball.
"The thing that's really odd is more than half of our team has never done a spring football (practice) right now," strength coach Dwight Galt said Thursday morning. "So this is a really new thing starting up on Monday. It was new for me because guys were asking me all of last week, 'What's spring football like?' ... That's a different dynamic."
With the lack of practice reps and usual on-field success last season, there's plenty up in the air for Penn State. The team finished 4-5 after starting 0-5 and saw coaching staff turnover on both sides of the ball.
Let's take a look at five storylines to watch heading into the beginning of spring ball.
Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback: There is no more important position on the football field than quarterback and there may not be a more interesting player to watch than redshirt junior Sean Clifford. Clifford started all but one game — against Iowa after struggling the previous week against Nebraska — at QB for Penn State last year. However, Will Levis, who started in that Iowa game, has since transferred to Kentucky, leaving the QB room barren of experience outside of Clifford.
The redshirt junior should be backed up by redshirt freshman Ta'Quan Roberson, who has one career passing attempt. Roberson was a four-star prospect but has yet to see any meaningful playing time after two seasons with the team. Behind him is freshman Christian Veilleux, who has plenty of upside but just enrolled at Penn State in January.
The lack of experienced competition should allow Clifford to safely maintain his position as the starter.
Offensive changes: While Penn State's offense will likely have the same player as last year under center during spring practice, it won't have the same play-caller. Kirk Ciarrocca is out after one season as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and Mike Yurcich is in.
Yurcich will have his first opportunity to see his quarterbacks throw and install his offense on the field after his unit had two months to learn the playbook following his hire on Jan. 8.
His offense should look very different than the one the Nittany Lions employed last year under Ciarrocca. Yurcich has run pass-oriented offenses that generate explosive plays in the passing game which opens larger holes in the running game. This will be his first chance to see his personnel in action in his scheme and make necessary alterations to the offense — or even to the depth chart — to better suit the unit moving forward.
Depth on the D-Line: Fewer position groups took as much of a hit from departures as the team's defensive line did. The team's top three leaders in sacks last season are all moving on, with Shaka Toney and Shane Simmons electing not to use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic and Antonio Shelton transferring to the University of Florida.
The trio combined for 11.5 sacks last year while the rest of the team combined for 9.5 total. And that doesn't include the departure of Jayson Oweh, a physical freak who drew extra attention from offensive lines and created pressure off the edge.
Sophomore Adisa Isaac and incoming transfer Arnold Ebiketie will be tasked with replacing the talent lost at defensive end while redshirt freshman Hakeem Beamon and incoming transfer Derrick Tangelo will soak up the open time on the interior.
Those four — and juniors P.J. Mustipher and Fred Hansard — are solidified in the rotation but spring practice will determine who can fill in some of the gaps when those players come off the field.
Replacing Freiermuth: Penn State will have to replace a few starters along the offensive line, but no departure will affect the offense more than that of Pat Freiermuth at tight end. The former Nittany Lion missed the last five games of the season — coincidentally, those were the team's only five wins in 2020 — and left Clifford to find different targets when he was under pressure. That five-game stretch should point to more future success without Freiermuth, but there's no denying the impact losing him will have.
He was reliable no matter what the situation and especially dangerous when the Nittany Lions had the ball in the red zone. Without him, and with a new offense, it's possible the position changes and looks different in the future. The only thing in the way of the tight end falling down the pecking order on offense is the sheer talent Penn State still possesses at the position.
Theo Johnson and Brenton Strange should have a leg up on the competition to take over with Strange making all five starts in Freiermuth's absence.
Both have the athleticism and pass-catching ability to continue making the position a strength for years to come, but it will be interesting to see how they're deployed in Yurcich's offense.
Youth at LB: The Nittany Lions' linebackers struggled at times in both run stopping and pass coverage. Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks started eight and nine games, respectively, last season at linebacker but should feel pressure from behind them on the depth chart this season. Neither veteran is an excellent athlete, an area where freshman Curtis Jacobs excels.
Jacobs is a great athlete and also possesses the strength and instincts necessary to sift through the trash and fill gaps in the run game. He would immediately increase the athleticism and upside at the position if he won a starting job over Luketa or Brooks and would join Brandon Smith as young and athletic linebackers with the ability to find success against the run and the pass.
He and Smith are the clear future at the position and it will be on Jacobs to apply enough pressure to push more of that future into the present in 2021.