State College, PA (CBS Philly)- Saturday begins a new era at Penn State as the Nittany Lions will have a new man under center for the first time in four seasons.
Trace McSorely, the program’s all-time leading passer, is gone now and fighting for a roster spot with the Baltimore Ravens. In his place, is redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford, who beat out long-time McSorely backup Tommy Stevens for the job in spring practice. Clifford enters the season with big shoes to fill as McSorely helped lead the Nittany Lions to four straight bowl bids and a Big Ten championship in his time with the team.
Replacing a player on any program’s all-time leaderboard is a difficult task and one that CBS Sports college football analyst Aaron Murray knows all too well. Murray stepped into the spotlight following Matthew Stafford’s career with the University of Georgia Bulldogs and expectations were high. So, Murray has some sage words of advice for Clifford as he embarks upon the role.
“Anytime you have a new quarterback coming in the first thing you want to see is not just the play on the field, but can you take over as a leader. That is something that guys around Trace bought into him,” said Murray. “Right now I think that is the goal of any of these new quarterbacks around the country. Building the trust of the 10 guys around you.”
“Sean is not going to be the flashy, make plays with his feet type of guy like Trace. But, you also have to have your own identity. There are two things, one is leadership and the other is identity,” continued Murray. “Don’t try to be the guy that came before you. If you’re not a runner, don’t try to go out there trying to be a runner just because that is what everybody is so used to seeing with Penn State football.”
Clifford will have some new faces stepping into bigger roles at the skill positions around him too. Also gone from last year’s team are running back Miles Sanders and wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins. In their place steps a stable of highly sought after recruits that head coach James Franklin has assembled to make just these types of transitions easier.
Sophomore Ricky Slade was one of the top running back recruits in the country and he now hopes to follow in the footsteps of Sanders and Saquon Barkley in becoming the next explosive back in Franklin’s offense. Junior receiver KJ Hamler was the offense’s big-play threat last season, but he’ll need some help from sophomores Justin Shorter and Jahan Dotson if the offense is to be as explosive as years past.
On defense, there is a lot of returning experience for Brent Pry to work with. The defensive line features the pass-rushing prowess of junior Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney with the interior presence of sophomore P.J. Mustipher. At linebacker, sophomore Micah Parsons is being looked at as a potential All-American and he has shown a knack for sniffing out plays and blowing opponents up in the backfield. The back end sees corner Tariq Castro-Fields return.
The unit should take a step forward with more experience back this season than there was heading into last year. The problem as usual lies with the division as the three other powers are all at varying states of transition/readiness. Ohio State with former Penn State commit and Georgia QB Justin Fields at the helm looks dangerous as ever. Michigan, with veteran quarterback Shea Patterson and new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, is the preseason favorite to win the conference. And in East Lansing, Mark Dantonio has his starting quarterback back and healthy to go with another ferocious defensive line.
“Right now, you have to love Michigan. With their schedule, love their quarterback, and I think this is the year that Harbaugh finally gets over the hump against Ohio State. There are three really good teams on the East side of the Big Ten,” said Murray. “But, I wouldn’t say Penn State is not talented enough to take any of them out. They are very talented, they have recruited well and they are coached well. I think in any given game, they could beat any of those three teams.”
The Nittany Lions will welcome Michigan to Happy Valley on October 19th and the teams have traded wins over the last several seasons. But, they have to go on the road to both East Lansing and Columbus with a trip to #20 Iowa thrown in as well. Making the schedule more difficult is that the Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State games come in back-to-back-to-back weeks in October. An East division championship isn’t out of reach by any means, but it’s going to come down to how quickly the young starters on offense can grow comfortable in the spotlight.
8/31 vs. Idaho, 3:30 p.m. ET
9/7 vs. Buffalo, 7:30 p.m. ET
9/14 vs. Pitt, 12:00 p.m. ET
9/27 @ Maryland, 8:00 p.m. ET
10/5 vs. Purdue, 12:00 p.m. ET
10/12 @ #20 Iowa, TBD
10/19 vs. #7 Michigan, TBD
10/26 @ #18 Michigan State, TBD
11/9 @ Minnesota, TBD
11/16 vs. Indiana, TBD
11/23 @ #5 Ohio State, TBD
11/30 vs. Rutgers