Penn State's 2021 season can be summed up in two words: missed opportunity. Head coach James Franklin's Nittany Lions were riding high at 5-0 in early October, which included wins against ranked Wisconsin and Auburn.
An injury to quarterback Sean Clifford derailed a 17-3 halftime lead against Iowa, and that was it for the rest of the Penn State football season. They would end the season 2-5, for a disappointing 7-5 finish, and lose to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.
Thankfully, Clifford looks to return this season at full health, and the Nittany Lions appear ready to rock in Happy Valley. But it won't just take one player to get Penn State back in the national conversation.
Joey Porter, CB
By the end of this season, you should easily know if junior cornerback Joey Porter Jr. is a first-round talent in 2023 or not. That's because of the wealth of talent he will go up against in opposing wide receivers this season. Michigan State's Jayden Reed, Michigan's Ronnie Bell, Auburn's Shedrick Jackson, and potentially the best wide receiver in college football, OSU's Jaxon Smith-Njigba. If Porter can succeed against these and other impact wide receivers in the Big Ten, there should be no doubt he'll go on Day 1 of April's NFL Draft. But don't sleep on Ji'ayir Brown either. The Penn State secondary is legit.
PJ Mustipher, DT
What has PSU always done best? Defense. It's "Linebacker U" after all. Don't believe us? Ask Curtis Jacobs and Jonathan Sutherland.
Penn State has always excelled at defense across the board, and former Miami head coach Manny Diaz will look to continue that legacy as defensive coordinator. Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher especially embodies that mold of a Nittany Lion defenseman. Towering at 6-foot-4 and 329 pounds, he' notched 107 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles in his four-year career. He hasn't played since last October due to injury, but he still earned a Second Team All-Big Ten nod. Mustipher is the defensive leader of this Penn State team, and we expect big things from him in State College.
Parker Washington, WR
Pro Football Focus has Parker Washington ranked as one of the top receiving options in the 2023 draft. Washington looks poised to lead the Penn State receiving corps this year after recording career highs across the board in 2021. He already has chemistry with Sean Clifford, who loves to target pepper once he gets on a hot streak with them. If Clifford's 2021 rears its ugly head and Penn State turns to freshman quarterback Drew Allar or Rutgers transfer portal product Christian Veilleux, Washington may be the most important player in offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich's arsenal in 2022.
Sean Clifford, QB
We saw last season what happens when Sean Clifford isn't on the field or is less than 100-percent. How he plays is crucial to the PSU football program this season. He tossed 3,107 yards, 21 TDs to 8 INTs in an injury-plagued 2021 season. Clifford needs only 2,060 yards to become the all-time passing leader at Penn State -- a feat he should easily accomplish if he can remain healthy. With receiving duo Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley lining up for targets, and running back Nicholas Singleton in the backfield, Clifford should be ready to shake off last season and embark on a career year in Happy Valley. Again, if he can remain healthy.