Sean Clifford

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throws a pass against Memphis during the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 28, 2019, in Arlington, Texas.

At Penn State, football success is expected.

James Franklin has maintained the high standard in Happy Valley, going 42-11 over the past four seasons and 56-23 in six years on the job. Penn State was one of the few teams to challenge eventual Big Ten champion Ohio State last season, trailing just 21-17 in the fourth quarter before falling 28-17. Franklin was rewarded with a six-year, $35.4 million contract extension during the offseason, meaning the former Vanderbilt coach who grew up watching the Nittany Lions in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

“It’s not often a coach gets an opportunity to move back to their home state and coach the team they grew up watching,” Franklin told the Sunbury Daily Item. “It’s even more rare that it’s a school as rich in history and tradition as Penn State. It’s been an honor and privilege to be the head coach of the Penn State football program for the last six years.”

This season, the Nittany Lions return another talented squad led by junior quarterback Sean Clifford on offense and standout junior linebacker Micah Parsons on defense. Clifford passed for 2,654 yards and 23 TDs in his first year as a starter, while Parsons was all over the field on defense with 109 tackles, five sacks and four forced fumbles.

Clifford has one of the top tight ends to throw to in the Big Ten in returning junior Pat Freiermuth (43 catches, 507 yards, seven TDs) and can lean on a capable running game led by returning running backs Journey Brown (129 carries, 890 yards, 12 TDs) and Noah Cain (84 carries, 443 yards, eight TDs). New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, brought in from Minnesota, has plenty of firepower to work with.

“He’s an experienced play caller,” Franklin told 247sports.com. “I think it’s going to look a little bit like Minnesota. It’s going to look a little bit like Penn State. As you know, even when you don’t hire a new coordinator, you’re tweaking things in the offseason and doing studies and adding a little bit there and cutting a little bit in other areas. That’s where we are right now.”

Here’s an early look at Penn State heading into the 2020 season:

WHAT THEY LOST

Speedy wide receiver KJ Hamler was a playmaking threat both in receiving (56 catches, 904 yards, eight TDs) and returning punts and kicks. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos had 14.5 tackles for loss and a team-high nine sacks last season. Punter Blake Gilliken made 53 starts and left Penn State as the school’s second-leading punter in school history, averaging 43 yards per attempt.

NEWCOMERS TO WATCH

Incoming freshman outside linebacker Curtis Jacobs, the highest-ranked player in Penn State’s 2020 class, could contribute immediately at Linebacker U. Incoming freshman KeAndre Lambert and Jaden Dottin will help restock Penn State’s depleted receiving corps. Ji’Aiyr Brown, a transfer from Lackawanna Community College, was a JUCO All-American last season with three interceptions and a sack in 2019.

PROSPECTS FOR 2020

Penn State should contend for a Big Ten title again this season, but as always, the big obstacles remain Michigan and Ohio State. This season, Penn State gets the Buckeyes at home but has to travel to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines. Clifford should be more comfortable in his second year as a starter, and Parsons and Wade will lead the defense. The main concerns are depth on defense and finding a return man to replace Hamler, but Penn State’s season will likely end with another New Year’s Day bowl trip.

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