Blue White Illustrated

September 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 7 of 75

8 S E P T E M B E R 2 0 2 1 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M T he offseason headlines relating to Penn State football have been domi- nated by some of the major changes executed by a program that produced its worst season in well over a decade. Key among those is the arrival of new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, widely considered to be one of the top offensive minds at the college level. Yur- cich arrived from Texas to replace Kirk Ciarrocca, having helped the Longhorns become a top-five scoring offense in col- lege football in 2020. Penn State witnessed some additional coaching staff turnover at a lower level that has been well-analyzed, replacing safeties coach Tim Banks with Anthony Poindexter and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen with Ty Howle. Of course, the Nittany Lions' activity in the transfer portal provided another key talking point. The new transfer rules adopted by the NCAA allowed the Penn State staff to execute a miniature rebuild on the fly, injecting some new blood into the program in the form of six transfers, many of them experienced veterans. These are all considerable alterations enacted by Penn State head coach James Franklin as he works to prevent a repeat of last season's misery. But, below the surface, there are some other interesting tweaks, too, that will have a significant impact on whether the Nittany Lions can return to what their fans had become accustomed to: com- peting regularly for an appearance in a New Year's Six bowl game. On the defensive side of the ball, es- pecially, Penn State has elected to tinker rather than tear down and start again like it did on offense. "I think we have the best chance to check all those boxes as far as having talented guys who are good enough," de- fensive coordinator Brent Pry told BWI this summer. "They just have to get to a point where their maturity and those types of things are where they need to be. And that's what the summer and the [preseason] camp is about. So, I feel re- ally pretty good right now. We've just got to stay the course." Part of staying the course for Penn State's defense this offseason has been about — in a literal sense — ensuring the players are where they need to be on the field. The experimentation that took place this offseason in regard to Jesse Luketa's position serves as the most overt ex- ample. Luketa, an experienced senior, left plenty of Penn State fans wanting more after his performance at linebacker last season, so the Nittany Lions have him working out on the defensive line in an effort to better utilize his strengths in 2021. "Jesse is practicing some at defensive end," Pry said. "What that role is going to look like, I don't know yet. But we're certainly going to experiment with it like we did with Micah [Parsons] some and put him at the line of scrimmage. He's one of those hybrid players, just like Micah. He's one of those guys who's got rush ability but looks pretty good playing from a two-point [stance] and playing at the second level. Jesse's best plays last year were when he was in the box. He's such a physical guy. He's got great strength. And we're going to try to maxi- mize what he does well, which is the sec- ond level in the box and his rush ability." Penn State made a more subtle tweak with another linebacker, junior Brandon Smith. But the motivation for the change was similar. Pry primarily deployed Smith at the Sam linebacker spot last season, where he took on a heavy load of pass-coverage duties. But Smith's primary strengths were his tackling and his physicality. So, with that in mind, Smith is making the move to the Will linebacker position, where he'll be more involved in the action that takes place closer to the line of scrim- mage. "It feels great being closer to the ball, for one, and also making a big differ- ence within the defense the way I want to," Smith said. "I'm still learning more about the position each day." The tinkering doesn't stop with the linebackers. Senior defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher took a step backward in efficiency last season according to his Pro Football Fo- cus ratings. He was playing at a lighter weight and was generally not as effective as a run defender. His role will change in 2021 as he moves to the 2-technique spot in the interior of the defensive line, meaning he'll line up over the opposition's guard. Mustipher added weight to prepare, and he's up to 323 pounds. "He's asserted himself as that guy on the defensive front, both physically and spiritually," strength coach Dwight Galt said. "He's done a great job of leadership, and we're looking forward to seeing him in the middle this year." On defense especially, Penn State has positioned itself to play to its strengths more than it did in 2020, when its prepa- rations were rushed and impacted by COVID-19 protocols. None of these tweaks will fix the Nit- tany Lions' problems in a vacuum, but, together, they could have a considerable impact. ■ O P I N I O N DAVID ECKERT davidecker Senior Jesse Luketa could play a hybrid role this year, getting reps at middle linebacker and defensive end. PHOTO BY MARK SELDERS/PENN STATE ATHLETICS Small Fixes Could Yield Big Improvements JUDGMENT CALL

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