How Penn State football has changed from the Rose Bowl to Big Ten media days

Tuesday, July 25, 2023 10:19 a.m.
Penn State football fans, we’ve (almost) made it.
The 2022 season is in the rearview mirror. Spring camp came and went. So did the NFL draft and a pair of transfer portal windows. June and July afforded players and coaches down time, to some extent. But now the 2023 campaign is nearly here.
Big Ten media days, the unofficial start of the season, begin Wednesday in Indianapolis. James Franklin, as well as Olu Fashanu, Adisa Isaac and Keaton Ellis, will spend plenty of time talking about what could be a memorable season.
But before they do, we thought it would be worthwhile to look back on how the Nittany Lions got to this point — how they moved on from their Rose Bowl win, restructured and reshaped their roster and tried to set themselves up for success this fall.
Portal movement
Penn State attacked the portal during the winter and spring windows. Franklin and his staff’s efforts yielded both high-level contributors and depth pieces.
The biggest addition was Kent State wide receiver Dante Cephas, who committed a couple weeks after the Rose Bowl. The Penn Hills native, who racked up 1,984 receiving yards the last two seasons, could turn out to be the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 option. Cephas and Florida State transfer Malik McClain have targets to claim after Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley both moved on to the NFL.
Penn State addressed other areas of concern, too. Minnesota running back Trey Potts provides a veteran presence and cover for Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Old Dominion defensive tackle Alonzo Ford adds competition to a position under the microscope. Mississippi State corner Audavion Collins helps fill the void left by Storm Duck’s abrupt departure. Florida Atlantic punter Riley Thompson and Columbia kicker Alex Felkins shore up a special teams unit in transition.
Coaching staff shakeup
Between the Rose Bowl and spring camp, Franklin made a few significant staffing decisions: firing Taylor Stubblefield and hiring Marques Hagans and Deion Barnes.
Stubblefield was relieved of his duties after three years with the team partially due to misses in the transfer portal. The Nittany Lions recruited Oregon’s Dont’e Thornton and West Virginia’s Kaden Prather heavily and lost out to Tennessee and Maryland, respectively. That helped prompt the hire of Hagans, who built a reputation as a dogged recruiter and top-tier developer of talent at Virginia.
In late February, a month after Hagans was brought onboard, Franklin had to make another hire after defensive line coach John Scott Jr. left for the NFL. Current and former players lobbied for Barnes, an analyst with the team, not to mention a well-respected letterman and recruiter. Barnes was promoted just ahead of spring camp.
Obviously, the pressure ultimately falls on the players to perform. But Hagans has to build out an unproven receiver room while Barnes has to get the best out of a shaky defensive tackle group and one of the best pass rushes in college football.
Spring standouts
All eyes during Penn State’s Blue-White game, as well as the media practice windows, were on quarterbacks Drew Allar and Beau Pribula. While Franklin hasn’t declared a starter, Allar is the expected successor to Sean Clifford. But more came out of spring camp than questions about the quarterback position.
With Cephas finishing up classes at Kent State, KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace III asserted themselves as Penn State’s top two receivers. Coming in third was rising sophomore Omari Evans, who showed off what Allar called “unreal speed.”
The name on a lot of lips was freshman linebacker Tony Rojas, who added 29 pounds after enrolling in January. Outside linebackers coach Stacy Collins called him a “natural talent,” one who can be penciled into the two-deep behind Abdul Carter and Curtis Jacobs.
Coaches also continued to praise a pair of defensive backs: corner Johnny Dixon and safety KJ Winston. Dixon snagging the second corner spot opposite Kalen King was a factor in Duck’s departure. Winston impressed but will have stiff competition for playing time in a room featuring Ellis, Zakee Wheatley and Jaylen Reed.
Weight room gains
Rojas’ aforementioned transformation was noteworthy but so were several others, particularly at defensive tackle.
Hakeem Beamon, who was listed at 264 pounds in 2022, is now at 284. Zane Durant moved from 276 pounds to 280. Jordan van den Berg is up to 301 pounds after being listed at 286 in the spring game. Dvon Ellies also added a few pounds from 295 last year to 302. Those interior linemen holding their weight and maintaining explosiveness will be key in stopping run-heavy teams like Michigan and Iowa.
Summer enrollees
A couple more big weight gains came from a pair of summer enrollees who could carve out roles as true freshmen.
Andrew Rappleyea, who gained 18 pounds and is up to 253 after enrolling in late May, has his eyes on the No. 3 tight end job. Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren are considered co-starters but the spot behind them is up for grabs. Khalil Dinkins had a nice spring camp. But don’t sleep on Rappleyea, a consensus four-star prospect and one of the top tight ends in the 2023 class, building a rapport with Allar.
On the other side of the ball, safety King Mack jumped up from 175 pounds to 190. That will go a long way as the four-star prospect tries to pry snaps away from Ellis, Reed, Wheatley and Winston. It won’t be easy but don’t be surprised to see former St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) star making plays in the secondary this fall.

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