Depleted Penn State defense will have hands full with Arkansas' balanced offensive attack

JASON MACKEY
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) runs a play against Missouri during an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Orientation might be difficult for Manny Diaz.

Although Penn State's new defensive coordinator won't fully take over until after the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, leaving in-game calls to co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Anthony Poindexter, surely the former Miami (Fla.) head coach will be watching with a keen eye, evaluating what he has and formulating a plan for 2022.

Give No. 22 Arkansas this: Diaz won't exactly be watching his new players crank home runs during batting practice.

"We have our work cut out for us," Poindexter said. "But I also think we're up to the challenge."

As Penn State aims to reverse a late-season trend where it went from a top-five team to dropping five of its final seven, the Nittany Lions must be mindful of several things, although let's start with a sliver of good news they received earlier this month.

The Razorbacks' top offensive playmaker, wideout Treylon Burks, won't play because he wants to preserve his health and status as a likely first-round pick. Burks (6-3, 225) certainly won't be missed by Penn State's secondary after the first team All-SEC pick had 67 catches for 1,123 yards (16.8 average) and 11 touchdowns, exceeding 100 yards in half of his 12 games.

But Burks was hardly a one-man show.

Arkansas QB will be handful: Arkansas' most intriguing player is probably redshirt-sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson, who has completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,578 yards and 21 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions. If that wasn't enough, the 6-3, 245-pound signal caller is a serious and sizable running threat.

Jefferson leads the team in carries (126), ranks second in yards (554) and is tied for second in touchdowns (5).

"They're a very well-rounded group offensively, starting with [Jefferson]," defensive end/linebacker Jesse Luketa said. "He's a big, talented guy who runs the ball very hard. He's capable of throwing and has weapons all around the field."

Lions missing key defensive pieces: That should be most concerning for Penn State, which will be missing a pair of linebackers in Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith — both opting to focus on the draft — along with defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who was lost for the season at Iowa, and All-American safety Jaquan Brisker, who announced on Monday that he would also not participate in the bowl game.

Couple their absences with former defensive coordinator Brent Pry leaving to become the head coach at Virginia Tech, plus the possibility that defensive end Arnold Ebiketie could also opt-out, and the Razorbacks should have an advantage when it comes to depth.

In fact, Jefferson is only part of a four-headed rushing attack that averages 217.3 yards per game, the 12th-most in the country. Penn State, by contract, averages just 106.4 rushing yards per game, which is 118th out of 130 FBS teams.

"Their [top] two running backs kind of remind me of [Michigan State's] Kenneth Walker III, how explosive they can be when they get the ball in space," Luketa added. "They're a very talented group, and I'm looking forward to that matchup."

Although he didn't cite any players by name, presumably Luketa was talking about redshirt-senior Trelon Smith and freshman Raheim Sanders, although he also could've been referencing sophomore Dominique Johnson.

Smith is second to Jefferson with 117 carries, leads the Razorbacks with 592 rushing yards and has scored five touchdowns. Sanders has run 101 times for 499 yards and three scores, while Johnson (86 carries, 498 yards) has a team-high seven touchdowns.

Although Penn State did a solid job defending the run during the season — its 136 yards allowed per game ranked 40th in FBS — and permitted the seventh-fewest points per game (16.8), the Nittany Lions will certainly have their hands full with this Arkansas attack.

"They're well-coached and have great personnel — quarterback, receivers, running backs, obviously a really good offensive line," Poindexter said. "Again, we're gonna have our challenges."

The biggest one of those will undoubtedly come in the middle of the field, where the defense must replace its top tacklers in Brooks (100 total, 53 solo), Smith (81 total, 45 solo) and maybe more.

Jacobs to have more responsibility: A greater responsibility should fall on sophomore linebacker Curtis Jacobs, who grew more comfortable in the second half, while Luketa could shift inside to Ellis' old spot. Safety Jonathan Sunderland — who announced Thursday he's coming back for a sixth year — might play in the box more against Arkansas.

It's manageable, but that doesn't change the fact that Penn State will be missing quality players. Arkansas' passing game also involves more than Burks. Redshirt-senior Tyson Morris (21 catches, 305 yards, 2 touchdowns) and redshirt-junior Warren Thompson (18-292-2 TD) are dangerous, too.

Looking to end on a positive note: The Nittany Lions no longer harbor the College Football Playoff hopes that existed when they entered Iowa's Kinnick Stadium at 5-0. But they do want to end the season on a positive note while making a quality first impression on the new boss.

"Guys are hungry and going about it the right way," said safety Ji'Ayir Brown, another key returnee for 2022. "We want to go into this bowl game and provide an example of what next season is gonna be like."