Nearly every preseason evaluation Penn State coach James Franklin has made of his 2022 football team has ended like this.
“I like where we’re at, but you guys will tell me very clearly where we’re at on the 1st [of September].”
Franklin begins his ninth season as Penn State’s head coach Sept. 1 at Purdue, a game that could determine the course of this season. We say could because the Lions began last year with a win over Wisconsin, a 5-0 record and a No. 4 ranking in the AP Top 25 before committing a dramatic freefall,
The 7-6 season included the most disappointing finish of Franklin’s head-coaching career, one that has bled into 2022 no matter how hard the Lions try to bury it. As a result, Franklin qualifies every assessment with the “you guys” clause.
Though Franklin may be reluctant to make predictions, we’re not. Here’s our look at the best and worst of 2022.
Penn State’s Offensive MVP
Quarterback Sean Clifford. The fourth-year starter probably won’t mount a Kenny Picketesque season but will close his college career with a shine. A healthy Clifford should throw for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns and lead a comeback win.
Penn State’s Defensive MVP
Linebacker Curtis Jacobs. The shift to Will linebacker will empower Jacobs to showcase his speed and lateral movement closer to the line of scrimmage. And defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will find some creative ways to employ Jacobs.
The team’s biggest strength
The secondary. There are two, and potentially four, NFL Draft picks in the group, led by safety Ji’Ayir Brown and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. Again, Diaz has plenty of options, including playing more five-man sets with corners Daequan Hardy, Johnny Dixon or Marquis Wilson.
The team’s biggest question mark
The offensive line. We’ll keep saying it until the situation changes. Franklin still is looking for his first All-Big Ten first-time lineman at Penn State. He’s also looking for a line that can lead a 4-minute offense consistently and decisively in the fourth quarter.
Penn State’s leading rusher
Running back Nicholas Singleton. Prepare yourself for another backfield rotation, at least against Purdue. Running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said that all four scholarship backs will play against the Boilermakers. That includes freshmen Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Ultimately, though, Singleton will be the breakout player of Penn State’s offense. He also will end Penn State’s streak of games without a 100-yard rusher, which stands at 16 entering the season.
Player you don’t know now but will by October
Safety Zakee Wheatley. The redshirt freshman led the defense in takeaways during spring drills and training camp. Wheatley played point guard and center field in high school, so he knows how to find the ball.
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Biggest shoes to fill
Punter Barney Amor. The sixth-year senior will replace Jordan Stout, the Big Ten punter of the year who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. Amor last punted in 2019 Colgate, where he earned two undergraduate degrees. Special teams coach Stacy Collins has become a big fan of Amor since joining the program.
Penn State’s unsung hero
Linebacker Jonathan Sutherland. Another sixth-year senior, Sutherland has started three games as a defensive player. But he’s a four-time team captain, commands respect in the locker room and is playing a position that seems to suit him. Sutherland could be a breakout player at Sam linebacker.
Next coach most likely to become a head coach
Diaz is the most obvious candidate, but we’ll go with safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter. He came close last year at Virginia, his alma mater, and will generate more interest this offseason.
Coach on the hot seat
Offensive line coach Phil Trautwein. He’s a great person who has a strong command of the finer points of line play. But last year was among the weakest for Penn State’s line under Franklin. If nothing changes in Trautwein’s third year, Franklin will be scouting.
Nov. 26 against Michigan State. Saving the best for last, Penn State concludes the regular season with a Senior Day win that leads into the question: How many seniors are skipping the bowl game?
Most frustrating loss
Oct. 22 against Minnesota. Another 5-0 start will send the Lions to Michigan on Oct. 15 for a top-10 matchup. After Michigan wins, Penn State returns home for the White Out against Minnesota. And Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who worked at Penn State in 2020, renew calls for Franklin’s ouster by winning in State College. This marks that annual game when everything just goes wrong for Franklin and his team.
Penn State record prediction
9-3. The Lions have the potential to win 10 regular-season games and might even catch Ohio State flatfooted at home in October. But after winning early road games against Purdue and Auburn, October strikes, and Penn State loses three straight. And the Michigan-Ohio State curse continues (Franklin is 4-12 against them).
AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button’s on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.