Penn State’s football team will look a lot different in the Outback Bowl against Arkansas than it has at any other point in the 2021 season.
Jahan Dotson will not be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver. JaQuan Brisker won’t be starting at safety. Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith won’t be at linebacker, and Arnold Ebiketie won’t be playing defensive end.
Penn State will be significantly impacted by these players deciding to opt-out and focus on the NFL Draft. Here is a breakdown of how those position groups will be affected and what players will have to step up for Penn State to end its season on a high note.
This is arguably the position group most affected by bowl game opt-outs. With Smith and Brooks gone and Penn State running a 3-4 defense, Curtis Jacobs is the only regular starting linebacker set to play in the Outback Bowl for the Nittany Lions.
So who is going to fill the other two spots? Jonathan Sutherland is an option. Although safety is his natural position, Sutherland started Penn State’s game against Rutgers at linebacker when Jacobs went down with an illness. According to OurLads, Sutherland is slated as the backup SAM linebacker behind Jacobs.
Defensive end Jesse Luketa also has a good amount of experience at linebacker. Although the defensive line will hurt because of Ebiketie’s departure, OurLads has him as Penn State’s new starting MIKE linebacker, with redshirt freshman Tyler Eldson backing him up.
OurLads also says Penn State’s third starting linebacker, the WILL, is slated to be redshirt junior Charlie Katshir. Katshir has 107 snaps this season via Pro Football Focus and hasn’t been on the field for more than 10 since the Lions’ loss to Illinois Oct. 23. Katshir is listed to be backed up by true freshman Kobe King.
So if the projection is correct, Penn State’s linebackers will be the sophomore Jacobs, a guy who primarily plays defensive end in Luketa and Katshir, who has limited experience.
Penn State’s secondary– said by many to be one of the best in school history– will get a preview of life without Jaquan Brisker New Year’s Day.
Ji’Ayir Brown will be the man for Penn State’s safety group in 2022 and will get an early head start against Arkansas. Who Brown’s partner will be is a little more up in the air, but OurLads projects that it will be Keaton Ellis, the junior from State College. Jaylen Reed, a freshman who was a four-star recruit according to 247Sports’s composite ratings, also figures to see some time in the defensive backfield against Arkansas and should see plenty of time next season.
None of Penn State’s cornerbacks have opted out of the Outback Bowl, so that position group should be unaffected.
THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Ebiketie was the best player on Penn State’s defensive front, so losing him for the Outback Bowl leads Penn State’s front four shorthanded. The group will hurt even more if Luketa moves to linebacker.
With Ebiketie gone, and if Luketa moves to linebacker, redshirt sophomore Vilbert Smith seems to be a strong candidate to get a start. Smith has gotten 130 defensive snaps this season and can be used as a defensive end or a linebacker. In the regular season, he got 32 snaps at the “LEO” position, which is a hybrid of both.
Defensive end Nick Tarburton, as well as defensive tackles Derrick Tangelo and Coziah Izzard, look like they’ll be available to play as of now. Tangelo’s status might be in doubt due to him not having any eligibility after 2021.
THE WIDE RECEIVERS
Even without Dotson, Penn State has plenty to be excited about with its wide receiver corps.
Parker Washington has shown promise in his first two seasons at Penn State. With Mitchell Tinsley transferring in from Western Kentucky, Washington’s once-presumed spot as Penn State’s No. 1 receiver in 2022 is in question. So the Outback Bowl might be Washington’s only chance to be a No. 1 wideout at Penn State.
In any case, Washington figures to have a significant role in Mike Yurcich’s offense next season, and Tinsley, KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Malick Meiga– not to mention highly-touted freshman Kaden Saunders– should give the Nittany Lions a solid corp for next season along with Washington.
With a lot of potential but only three college football catches to his name– one of which being a 67-yard touchdown against Rutgers– it will be intriguing to see what Meiga can do New Year’s Day in what should be his most extensive sample.