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Analyzing Penn State football in 2020: 3 things to learn from wild Big Ten ride

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

Penn State football suddenly was shackled with the most difficult job in the Big Ten — even though most didn't realize it.

Everyone had it tough trying to navigate college football in a COVID-19 world.

But when considering their expectations, staff changes and unforeseen adversity, no one was up against it more than this team.

All of which isn't excuse for an 0-5 beginning. Nearly none is. 

And yet it gives more power and promise to their 4-0 ending.

Dec 19, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin congratulates tight end Brenton Strange (86) after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Illinois 56-21. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The stage was set with possibly the program's most critical player losses ever, and then the toughest opening schedule.

Plus, their serious offensive coaching upgrade was wrecked by having no spring practice or traditional summer camp to actually get to know their players and implement their plans, hands-on.

Overcoming adversity is one thing. Making up for losing three potential All-Americans (Micah Parsons, Pat Freiermuth, Journey Brown), two more running backs and the top cornerback and defensive end changed the complexion of the entire team.

They had to fix themselves, too, against arguably the Big Ten's best two teams to start: Indiana and Ohio State.

And do it without any fans in one of the world's largest stadiums to lead them on.

So here are the biggest things to learn from a season that was unexpectedly turned into a recovery mission.

One that ended as strangely and abruptly as it began:

Future forged in worst start ever

Penn State running back Keyvone Lee (24) looks to elude Illinois defensive lineman Jer'Zhan Newton (94) during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

The Lions had to recreate themselves as they went.

They simply didn't own the ingredients of a Top 10 team after the initial injuries and defections, and it took a while for its leaders and youngest players to adapt.

Still, all of those problems, that paved the way for their youngest talents, made this team grow up quickly. And that is the blessing in a season that never was going to deliver what so many had hoped for, regardless.

Penn State had to focus more on rising stars like offensive lineman Caedan Wallace, tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson, linebackers Brandon Smith, Lance Dixon and Curtis Jacobs and running backs Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes.

The list of young talent stretches even longer, too.

By the time the Lions began coming together and winning, these guys were not only playing but feeling comfortable doing so.

They will help the team hit the beginning of 2021 running, even faster than most will expect.

A position of flux stabilized

Parker Washington of Penn State crosses the goal line scoring Penn State's first TD of the game in the first half during Big Ten college football match up, Penn State at Rutgers in Piscataway, NJ on December 5, 2020.

The Lions entered 2020 with their fourth wide receivers coach in as many years.

Tougher yet, Taylor Stubblefield didn't have a normal off-season to help solve what loomed as the team's biggest question.

But as the fall progressed, the receivers became an impressive development, starting with Jahan Dotson's transformation from complimentary piece to national star and Parker Washington from uncertain rookie to Big Ten standout.

Rookie KeAndre Lambert-Smith also showed steady promise.

The progress of the youngest wideouts is particularly encouraging under Stubblefield, which should include intriguing prospects we haven't seen much of yet: freshmen TJ Jones, Jaden Dottin and 6-foot-4 Malick Meiga.

Even with Dotson's possible early departure to the NFL this group should stay strong.

Penn State's 2021 recruiting class features three high-ceiling talents in Lonnie White, Jr., Liam Clifford and Harrison Wallace.

At least one should be a significant contributor next fall.

A recovery at linebacker

Brandon Smith of Penn State sacks quarterback Johnny Lanngan of Rutgers in the first half during a Big Ten college football match up that saw Penn State defeat Rutgers 23-7 in Piscataway, NJ on December 5, 2020.

Penn State struggled with open-field tackling more than ever this season, particularly through that opening stretch.

The new starting linebackers were the biggest culprits.

As the season progressed, at least Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks showed modest improvement in space and tightened down more on inside plays.

The biggest flashes, though, came from the youngest here, in Smith, Dixon and Jacobs. Smith, who was up and down through the opening losses, really began to hum down the stretch.

His best was in the finale against Illinois, where he led the defense with eight tackles, three behind scrimmage. Each of these three possess top-end speed and athleticism and could be your starters next season.

And that could change the identity of a defense that struggled to force turnovers and make game-changing plays. Because clamping down on opponents in the second half and even holding them to low total yardage only get you so far.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.