Penn State's returning football stars eye a shot at redemption

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) scores a touchdown on a 75-yard pass in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Everyone in Holuba Hall is keenly aware that the fans who love Penn State football aren't going to tolerate anything close to last year's 0-5 start.

Quarterback Sean Clifford knows his legacy as a Nittany Lion hedges on overcoming getting benched for Will Levis the previous year.

"It was a difficult year for everybody, including myself," Clifford told reporters on Monday via Zoom. "I learned so many things just about leadership and hard work and staying the course. I've piled up all the bad experiences into my memory bank. I'm learning how to deal with certain situations on and off the field."

Reasons for returning: Clifford, safety Jaquan Brisker, and receiver Jahan Dotson took some time before practice on Monday to chat with reporters, and they carried a familiar theme.

"I didn't want to leave on an 0-5 note," Brisker said. "I knew what type of team we were going to have when I came back, so I figured I might as well come back and do it the right way and end on a good note."

Each player discussed their reasons for returning to University Park.

"The expectation I have for myself is getting better every year," Dotson said. "I had a pretty solid season last year, I would say.

Dotson looks to "be legendary" for PSU: Dotson mixes confidence with humility better than most athletes. He might be the only person who'd consider 52 catches, leading the conference with 884 receiving yards and eight touchdowns as merely being solid.

Dotson made outstanding catches last year; his plays against Ohio State were incredible. He did a lot of great things for the Nittany Lions, but he's not satisfied.

"I want to have a remarkable season, one that you guys will never forget. Every day I go to meetings, I write on the top of my notebook, 'Be legendary,'" he said.

Dotson could've taken a chance in the NFL draft, but he chose another year at Penn State after a conversation with Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields.

"We told ourselves we're going to come back. We told ourselves it's going to be better than what we did last year," Brisker told reporters. "We're coming back for a reason. We got a chip on our shoulders. We're going to bring back the normal.

"We can't set the standard how we did last year. We got to go above and beyond, so that's basically what the conversation was about, and then we made our decision, and we came back."

Consequences of losing: Brisker knows that losing means consequences. One of them was offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca getting fired after one season — though he probably doesn't get canned if eventual replacement Mike Yurcich didn't get let go when Texas fired the entire staff — and moved on to West Virginia.

Penn State and Clifford are familiar with change. Yurcich is Clifford's fourth offensive coordinator as a Nittany Lion.

Will Yurcich's new approach work for Clifford?

"It's been exciting. It's a combination of explosiveness and grinding out the ball," Clifford said about the new offense. "It's everything that you want. I'm not going to give away too much just yet because I'm grinding through it myself. I'm excited for everybody to see it in the future."

Dotson sees the potential with Yurcich.

"He's a character. I love it, though," Dotson said. "I love the energy he brought to the team. I honestly can't wait to go through the whole season with him. He's a mastermind."

Last season, the program said similar things about Ciarrocca. Maybe all of the adversity of playing during a pandemic was overwhelming. Perhaps the Nittany Lions will perform better with a proper practice schedule that was unavailable in 2020.

From the other side of the ball, Brisker, who finished the season with an interception, 57 tackles and several all-conference and All-American honors from various publications, believes it'll be different with the third offensive coordinator in three seasons.

"The new offense is high-speed. Super fast, I would say. He came in with a plan," Brisker said of Yurcich. "You can tell he's all business. He's going to make you tired."

We'll find out if Brisker is right, starting with challenging games against Wisconsin and Auburn to open 2021.