There’s a lot to like about Penn State’s 10th-ranked football team as it prepares to play in three weeks. There are also big questions symbolized by the absence of Micah Parsons and KJ Hamler.
The Parsons issue is straightforward: The gifted linebacker from Harrisburg would have been one of the best defensive players in the country, had he not opted out of the 2020 season to prep next year’s NFL Draft, in which he will be a top 10, maybe top five, overall pick.
Hamler, a small but dynamic wide receiver and return specialist, announced he was turning pro soon after Penn State’s Cotton Bowl win in January, and was a second-round pick of the Denver Broncos in an extraordinarily wide receiver-dense 2020 draft.
The truth is Penn State doesn’t have a returning player as good as Parsons, and didn’t get nearly enough from the passing game, or the receiver group, even with Hamler a year ago.
Having said that, let us now try to talk Nittany Nation in off the ledge.
Parsons: Parsons would have started at the Will LB spot, probably with sophomore Brandon Smith at Sam and Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa competing for the middle backer job.
On paper, the new reality looks simple: Brooks in the middle, Smith at Sam and Luketa replacing Parsons at Will.
Smith was an elite recruit and has Parsons-esque talent. Brooks played quite a bit last year, in some key spots, and seemed to get better each week.
Luketa, according to defensive coordinator Brent Pry, “is an animal right now, man.’’
Pry referred to Luketa’s performance in last year’s blowout of Maryland, when Parsons was ejected for targeting. Luketa replaced him at Will and had five tackles and a pass breakup in little more than half of a 59-0 rut.
“He’s taken ownership of the defense,’’ Pry said Wednesday. “He’s a powerful guy, he’s got a big demeanor. He runs the show. He’s a real presence, and he knows this is the time.’’
One wild-card factor here is Curtis Jacobs, the 36th ranked player in the high school class of 2020.
Jacobs is a redshirt freshman and hasn’t found much traction yet. He’s undersized (6-2, 220) and played safety and wide receiver in high school.
Overall, the LB group consists of athletic, high-level recruits. They won’t replace Parsons, but they won’t be a weakness. Developing depth along the defensive line and at cornerback are probably bigger issues.
Hamler: Of the seven Penn State players who had double-figure receptions in 2019, only Hamler and junior Jahan Dotson (27 receptions for 488 yards and five TDs) were wide receivers.
“We have to get more production (from the wideouts), no doubt about it,’’ head coach James Franklin said in a February interview.
“We have to throw and catch for a higher percentage.’’
This is a problem. There are no clear solutions, but plenty of possibilities:
There’s a new offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, ex- of Minnesota. The Gophers threw for 339 yards in a defeat of Penn State last year, 338 of them to wideouts.
For the fourth time in four years, there’s also a new WRs coach, Taylor Stubblefield.
“Coach Stubbs told us from Day 1, whoever learns the playbook the fastest is going to play,” Dotson said. “Right now, As a whole, we’re getting things down now. We’re able to play fast and play confident and play loose.”
Quarterback Sean Clifford was good and should be better. Pat Freiermuth should be one of the best tight ends in the country.
With Journey Brown leading a squadron of elite running backs and 85 combined returning starts of the offensive line, the Lions should be able to run the heck out of the ball, which, of course, makes it easier to pass it.
Maybe R-sophomore Daniel George (and if not George, perhaps blue-chip freshman early enrollee KeAndre Lambert) has a chance to emerge as the big, physical receiver Dotson and Hamler can’t be.
But it doesn’t appear that the next Allen Robinson or Chris Dotson are walking through that door any time soon.