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Penn State to open college football season led by defense while youthful offense finds its stride

The 2019 Penn State offense has the potential to be very good given the speed at the skill positions. But with youth, a new quarterback and two starting spots to be filled along the offensive line before Saturday’s season opener against Idaho, it may take the Nittany Lions a while to put things together.

The Lions defense, on the other hand, possesses more experience at key positions and is coming off a season where it finished in the FBS top 25 in six categories, including average points allowed (20.5, 23rd), pass defense (181.5 yards, 15th), and sack average (3.62, 1st).

So the defense may be called upon to carry the team, at least early in the season, while the offense and the quarterback, whether it’s redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford or redshirt freshman Will Levis, find their stride against hostile opponents instead of fellow teammates.

That may sound like pressure, but fifth-year senior cornerback John Reid doesn’t see it that way.

“I think the most pressure we’re going to put on ourselves is going to be within our program,” the St. Joseph’s Prep graduate said. “We don’t really use a lot of outside things as motivation. It’s not what we do. Any pressure that we feel is coming from us and it’s not really pressure, it’s just a belief that we can be really good.”

One-half of the program’s 10 seniors this season line up on the defensive side of the football – Reid, linebackers Cam Brown and Jan Johnson, tackle Robert Windsor and safety Garrett Taylor. Two members of the defensive end rotation – Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter) and Shane Simmons – are fourth-year juniors, with true junior Yetur Gross-Matos a returning All-Big Ten player.

“We’ve had a lot of honest conversations with each other and we all really set a standard for who and what we want to be this year,” Toney said. “We’re not envious of each other at all, so it doesn’t matter if one guy gets the sack. It more motivates you that I need to go get the sack, or this guy made a great play, I need to make a great play.”

Head coach James Franklin also has been pleased with the depth at linebacker and in the secondary. Sophomore Micah Parsons, who led the team in tackles last season despite starting just one game, and Johnson will lead a deep and talented linebacker unit.

‘I think we’ve got a chance to be really good,” Franklin said. “I think we’re as good as any place I’ve ever been at defensive end right now. I think we’re as good as we’ve been since we’ve been here at linebacker. I think we’re as good as we’ve been at corner.”

In the secondary, Reid and Taylor are the leaders. Taylor is part of a four-man group at safety where co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Tim Banks said he’s confident playing any of the quartet at any time.

Banks loves the speed and size of the defense, joking that “I don’t think anyone will look much better than we do getting off the bus as it relates to our front seven.”

“I think we’re fast,” he said. “I love our front, they’re extremely athletic and they run hard. Our edge guys are tremendous. You look at our linebackers, I think our length is great. So I think we have a great combination of speed and size. I think on the back edge, we have a unique blend of experience and speed and some youth that really has a chance to be scary.”

That also holds true for the youth on the offensive side. Redshirt sophomore KJ Hamler could break a big play at any moment as a wide receiver or kick returner. A pair of sophomores, tight end Pat Freiermuth and running back Ricky Slade, combined to score 14 touchdowns last season. Slade tallied six backing up Miles Sanders.

Of course, the main question is the quarterback position, where Trace McSorley excelled for three years. Sean Clifford threw seven passes in four appearances last season while Will Levis did not see any action. The starter will be able to ease into action in the opener against Idaho, an FCS team.

The Nittany Lions will begin with three non-conference games at home and then have a week off before entering Big Ten play at Maryland. Franklin said he feels good about what he has seen in camp, and hopes that some practices and scrimmages in Beaver Stadium will get his young players used to the enormity of that and other venues where they’ll be playing.

“I think our chemistry is really good,” he said. “I think our cohesion from player to player, from player to staff, is really good, a lot of good things. Obviously you never truly know until you get into that stadium and play. So we’ll see. But I feel really good right now.

“A good percentage of our guys are so much more experienced, are so much stronger, are so much more ready to play this year. So I think obviously that’s going to be meaningful for us.”

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Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a pass during the Blue-White spring scrimmage on April 13, 2019, in University Park, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a pass during the Blue-White spring scrimmage on April 13, 2019, in University Park, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

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