UPADHYAYA: Four takeaways from Penn State's roller-coaster 2020 football season

PARTH UPADHYAYA
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin joins his players for the alma mater following an NCAA college football game against Michigan State in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Penn State went into the 2020 season with sky-high expectations. After three 11-win seasons and New Year's Six bowl appearances since 2016, the Nittany Lions had College Football Playoff aspirations this year.

But that all came crashing down quickly.

Head coach James Franklin's squad almost immediately lost three of its best players in linebacker Micah Parsons (opted out in August), followed by redshirt junior running back Journey Brown and sophomore running back Noah Cain. Then came the loss of star tight end Pat Freiermuth in mid-November to a season-ending surgery, as well as injuries to other impact players throughout the season.

The hindrances caused by the lack of key personnel and not having spring practices in a pandemic-stricken offseason led to a program-worst 0-5 start for the Nittany Lions.

Still, credit has to be given to Penn State for sticking together when it would've been easy to fall apart and call it quits. The group rallied to win four consecutive games to end the season with a 4-5 record.

Now, primarily because of young players being forced to quickly grow up, next season looks like it could be a promising one for the Nittany Lions. They should be able to use the lessons from this fall to ensure that 2020 was a one-off occurrence rather than a preview of what's to come.

Here are four takeaways from Penn State's 2020 campaign:

Penn State's RBs must be a focal point of offense moving forward: Heading into the 2020 season, Penn State had one of the deepest and most talented running backs rooms in the country. The Nittany Lions' rotation in the backfield featured Brown, Cain, sophomore Devyn Ford, and the freshman duo of Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes.

That changed quickly, though. Brown didn't play a snap and was forced to medically retire in November because of a heart condition, and Cain went down with a season-ending foot injury on Penn State's first drive of the season against Indiana.

But the team's running game was effective regardless. It took some time, but the Nittany Lions' running backs found their footing — especially Lee, who finished the season as Penn State's leading rusher with 438 yards and four touchdowns through nine games.

Lee flipped a switch in the Nittany Lions' Week 6 win over Michigan. In that contest, the 6-foot, 230-pound Florida native ran for a career-high 134 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.

In Penn State's final four games of the season — wins against Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois — Lee totaled 345 rushing yards. He ran for over 85 yards in three of those games.

While Franklin said early in the season (after the losses of Brown and Cain) that Ford would be the team's feature back, Lee demonstrated that he could be ready to take on that role one day in the near future, too.

With Cain expected to be healthy again next season and Baylor grad transfer running back John Lovett added to the mix, Penn State will again have a strong five-man rotation at running back in 2021. The Nittany Lions should rely heavily on their ground game next fall, in what should be a more successful campaign than this season.

The Nittany Lions' biggest question mark this offseason is at QB: For months leading up to the start of the 2020 season, one of the biggest storylines surrounding Penn State was whether redshirt junior Sean Clifford could take the next step as a quarterback.

Well, we're now into another offseason, and here we are again, asking the same question.

Clifford struggled mightily as the Nittany Lions opened their season with a program-worst 0-5 start. During that stretch, the 6-foot-2, 217-pound Ohio native threw eight interceptions and had two fumbles returned for touchdowns.

It wasn't until Penn State's first win of the season over Michigan when Clifford started to appear more collected and confident. From the win against the Wolverines to the Nittany Lions season finale — a four-game stretch — he threw just one interception and only fumbled once.

The second-year starter finished 2020 with 1,883 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while adding 335 rushing yards, three touchdowns and three fumbles on the ground.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Levis pitched in, too. The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Connecticut native took over for a benched Clifford in Week 4 versus Nebraska and started in Clifford's place in Week 5 against Iowa. Levis — who was used more situationally down the stretch of the season — finished the year with 421 yards and a touchdown through the air and 260 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

In a group of quarterbacks next season that will feature Clifford, Levis, freshman Ta'Quan Roberson, freshman Micah Bowens and incoming freshman Christian Veilleux, there doesn't appear to be a clear option to replace Clifford as the team's QB1.

So, while it's likely that Penn State will have a more successful season next fall, the Nittany Lions' ceiling will be determined by Clifford's ability to improve this offseason.

A position of uncertainty in WR is one of Penn State's biggest strengths: One of Penn State's biggest points of uncertainty before the 2020 season kicked off was its wide receivers corps. After the 2019 season, the Nittany Lions lost former No. 1 receiver K.J. Hamler — who had 904 of the team's 2,877 total receiving yards on the year — to the NFL Draft.

At first, it was unclear who would step up to make up for that lost production. Junior receiver Jahan Dotson had something to say about that, though.

The 5-foot-11, 182-pound Nazareth native finished the season with a Big Ten-leading 884 receiving yards and eight touchdowns through only nine games. Dotson had five 100-yard receiving games — he consistently provided a big-play threat for the Nittany Lions, who lacked explosiveness on offense in other areas.

Behind Dotson, freshman receiver Parker Washington also showed plenty of promise. Washington finished the season second on the team with 489 receiving yards and six touchdowns. And freshman KeAndre Lambert-Smith flashed glimpses of potential, too — catching 15 passes for 138 yards.

Dotson — who finished the season with one of the best performances of all-time by a Penn State receiver (189 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Illinois) — could very well decide to declare for the NFL Draft this offseason and skip his senior year.

If Dotson doesn't return, the Nittany Lions can turn to Washington and Lambert-Smith to lead the way next fall. Adding incoming freshman Lonnie White Jr., a four-star recruit, to the mix helps, too.

No matter how things shake out this offseason, Penn State's receiving corps should be in decent shape when the team gets set to kick off its 2021 campaign.

Players in the Nittany Lions' secondary will have to step up this offseason: Early in the season, Penn State's secondary was susceptible to big plays. But as the season progressed, the group started gelling and was able to turn things around.

The Nittany Lions ended 2020 No. 26 in the country with 198.6 passing yards allowed per game.

Now, though, the secondary will likely lose starters in senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, senior safety Jaquan Brisker and senior safety Lamont Wade. All three of those players could choose to return for another season — with the NCAA granting a blanket eligibility waiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but that's far from a guarantee.

Brisker and Wade were responsible for two of Penn State's four total interceptions this season, and both players were top three on the team in passes defended.

Castro-Fields, on the other hand, only played in the first three games of the season — against Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland — because of injuries. The 6-foot, 191-pound Maryland native was projected to have a sizable impact on the Nittany Lions' defensive success.

Penn State must now turn to less-experienced players to replace that lost production. Redshirt junior safety Jonathan Sutherland and junior safety Ji'Ayir Brown have been solid as reserves. And redshirt freshman cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and sophomore cornerback Keaton Ellis both showed flashes of excellence this season, too.

It will be these players who will need to take strides forward this offseason to ensure the Nittany Lions' secondary isn't porous come next fall.