Almost every preseason assessment Penn State coach James Franklin has made of his 2022 football team has ended this way.
“I like where we are, but you guys are going to tell me very clearly where we are on the 1st. [of September].”
Franklin begins his ninth season as Penn State’s head coach on Sept. 1 at Purdue, a game that could determine the course of this season. We say can because the Lions started last year with a win over Wisconsin, a 5-0 record and a No. 4 in the AP Top 25 before taking a dramatic free fall,
The 7-6 season included the most disappointing finish to Franklin’s 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.
Although Franklin may be reluctant to make predictions, we are not. Here’s our look at the best and worst of 2022.
Penn State’s Offensive MVP
Central defender Sean Clifford. The fourth-year rookie probably won’t have a Kenny Picketesque season, but he will end his college career on a whim. A healthy Clifford should throw for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns and lead to a comeback victory.
Penn State’s defensive MVP
Linebacker Curtis Jacobs. The move to linebacker Will 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 greatest strength
Medium. 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
Offensive line. We will continue to say it until the situation changes. Franklin is still looking for his first All-Big Ten player 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. Get ready for another rotation in the backfield, at least against Purdue. Running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said all four running backs will play against the Boilermakers. That includes freshmen Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Ultimately, however, Singleton will be Penn State’s best offensive player. It will also end Penn State’s streak of games without a 100-yard rusher, which is 16 entering the season.
Player you don’t know now, but you will by October
Safety Zakee Wheatley. The redshirt freshman led the defense in tackles during spring practice and training camp. Wheatley played point guard and center in high school, so he knows how to find the ball.
Scroll to Continue
Biggest shoes to fill
Punter Barney Amor. The sixth-year senior will replace Big Ten Player of the Year Jordan Stout, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. Amor last worked at Colgate in 2019, 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 at defensive lineman. But he is a four-time team captain, has respect in the locker room and is playing a position that seems to suit him. Sutherland could be a successful player at linebacker Sam.
The next coach will most likely become the head coach
Diaz is the most obvious candidate, but we’ll go with safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter. He was approached last year at Virginia, his alma mater, and will generate more interest this offseason.
Coach in the hot seat
Offensive line coach Phil Trautwein. He is a wonderful person who has a firm grasp on the finer points of the game. 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 a scout.
The biggest victory
Nov. 26 vs. Michigan State. Saving the best for last, Penn State ends the regular season with a Senior Day win that begs the question: How many seniors are making it to the bowl game?
Most frustrating loss
Oct. 22 vs. Minnesota. Another 5-0 start will send the Lions to Michigan on Oct. 15 for a top-10 matchup. After the Michigan win, Penn State returns home for the White Out against Minnesota. And Minnesota’s PJ Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who worked at Penn State in 2020, renew calls for Franklin to leave by winning in State College. This marks that annual game when everything goes wrong for Franklin and his team.
Predicting Penn State’s record
9-3. The Lions have the potential to win 10 regular season games and could even catch Ohio State flat-footed at home in October. But after winning early road games against Purdue and Auburn, October strikes and Penn State loses three in a row. And the Michigan-Ohio State curse continues (Franklin is 4-12 against them).
7 major storylines that will decide Penn State’s season
The ‘super humble’ Lions who build a quiet confidence in the camp
Who will start in Penn State’s offense this season? Our elections
Projecting Penn State’s starting defense in 2022
AllPennState is the home for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, following three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button on homepage) for more great content on the SI.com network.