Penn State media day: Five noteworthy observations about 2021 Nittany Lions football team

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State football coach James Franklin, second from front right, congratulates freshman cornerback Kalen King (4) after winning a 1-on-1 against a wide receiver during an NCAA college football practice Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in State College, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP)

For eight months, Penn State has had to soak in the disappointment of an ugly 2020 that saw the Nittany Lions lose their first five games and finish with a losing record for the first time since 2004.

Saturday brought the opportunity to look ahead, with media day at Beaver Stadium serving as an unofficial page-turning to 2021.

With two practices of their fall camp now in the books, here are some of the noteworthy takeaways players and coaches left with their comments.

1. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over here: The announcement that Penn State intends to open Beaver Stadium to full capacity in the fall has been greeted as a return to normalcy in some quarters. But it's clear coach James Franklin and Co. are not taking that plan for granted.

Franklin's news conference was changed from in-person to a Zoom setting at the last minute. Writers were masked in the press box. Player interviews were conducted from a distance on the Beaver Stadium field.

That hybrid approach may apply to parts of the gameday experience, too, depending upon how well the delta variant can be contained And Franklin wants fans to keep one word in mind if nuisance precautions become necessary at some point in order to keep the stadium open to fans.

"Our fourth core value is sacrifice," Franklin said.

"I just think the more people that can say, look, 'whether I completely agree with it or not, I'm going to get the vaccination. I'm going to wear mask when appropriate,' it gives us the best opportunity to be in that stadium, and as close back to what we describe as 'normal' as possible."

2. Jesse Luketa will be one of the more intriguing players to watch on this defense during camp: The most significant piece of actual news revealed Saturday came from Franklin, who confirmed that junior defensive end Adisa Isaac will miss most — if not all — of the season with an offseason injury that was not football related.

That puts Luketa under a brighter spotlight as he works primarily with that position group during camp after spending most of his tenure in Happy Valley as a linebacker.

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry said the move was made, in part, because of the injury and the resulting loss of depth. But how much Luketa will actually play there remains to be seen. He was, after all, still grouped with the linebackers while meeting the media.

Luketa doesn't think we should look into that too much, saying he expects to work interchangeably with both groups, even as coaches want to get him reps in the new spot for the time being.

"I know for a fact I won't be coming off the field," he said. "I could start a series off at inside linebacker, end the series at defensive end."

And so the results of this experiment could have wide-ranging personnel impacts, making it one of the more impactful storylines to watch between now and the Sept. 4 opener at Wisconsin.

3. It sure sounds like first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has a preference for the number of guys who will get most of the time in the running back rotation: "Most likely three," he said. "Maybe four."

That means there will probably be two men out of a group that includes five names with legitimate experience, here and elsewhere.

Caziah Holmes, Keyvone Lee and Devyn Ford all got meaningful carries in 2020 amid injuries and the loss of Journey Brown to medical retirement. Noah Cain is looking to bounce back from missing almost all of last year with injury after showing flashes of brilliance in 2019. And transfer John Lovett brings experience from Baylor.

Injuries could always cause a scramble again at some point. But for now, Yurcich thinks rhythm is important for his lead back or backs and doesn't want to mess with it by feeling a need to get too many different names involved. So, consider the stage set for some fierce competition during camp.

4. Installation of Yurcich's offense is going better than the effort to transition to Kirk Ciarrocca's did a year ago because ... well how could it not? Penn State was able to get a full spring practice schedule in earlier this year. Something it lost to the pandemic in 2020. And it's had a more normal camp environment after having to split practices as a precaution last year.

Franklin didn't think it was even fair to compare the two efforts, simply because of the logistics involved.

The more apt comparison may be to the 2016 Big Ten championship team, which needed a few weeks to get going under Joe Moorhead, even under non-pandemic conditions. And Penn State will not get the benefit of a warm-up act this season, with matchups at Wisconsin and at home against SEC power Auburn schedule for the first three weeks of the campaign.

Fortunately for Franklin, he doesn't think the learning curve this time is nearly as steep as it might seem from the outside with a third transition at coordinator in three years.

"We're running most of the same plays that we've always run," the coach said. "But it's the packaging, it's the presentation. Whether it's huddling, or whether it's going no huddle. Whether it's lining up in multiple personnel sets ... whether it's empty. Whatever it may be, it's the packaging of how you put it all together, and that's been fun."

5. Without getting into too many specifics, quarterback Sean Clifford is sounding unbothered by the X's and O's for many of the same reasons: "It's all spread offense," he said of having to learn another coach's playbook after appearing to struggle at times with the transition to Ciarrocca from Ricky Rahne. So much so that he was benched for Will Levis at one point last year. ]

If it's truly that simple, though, then the focus of critics will likely turn to his confidence and ability to show that he can put those uglier moments behind him, because that also seemed to be an issue for him.

Clifford answered that question by stressing the importance of having a short memory while still recognizing that he has to get better for the Lions to contend for anything meaningful.

"Last season was last season. I'm not going to sit here and act like it didn't happen," he said. "But I'm also not going to sit here and act like we're not 0-0 right now going into Wisconsin. We have a chance to win the Big Ten championship this year. I'm not going to worry about what happened last year. We've got a great team."