STATE COLLEGE — December is a weird month in any college football facility. Once the grind and the routine of the regular season stops, everyone is forced to think about what’s next and whether or not they’re staying, entering the transfer portal or playing in a bowl game.
“Every meeting we have, you look around to see if someone is missing, like, ‘Oh, he’s not here,’” Penn State defensive end Adisa Isaac said.
The empty chairs in the meeting room always help tell the story — or at least that’s what players have started to figure out.
“Sometimes you can see where the guys’ chairs are gone, like Joey (Porter Jr.) and Parker (Washington),” tight end Brenton Strange said. “We support those guys for sure. Like, whatever decision they think is best for them, we definitely support those guys and we’re behind them all the way.”
So, as safety Ji’Ayir Brown sat at the front of the media room Friday afternoon, he smiled. He said yes, he is committed to playing in the Rose Bowl against Utah on Jan. 2. When did the senior make up his mind?
“Just right now,” Brown said.
He was serious, acknowledging that when he last spoke publicly after the Michigan State game, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
“I still haven’t told them,” he said of his teammates. “We haven’t been around each other as much. We’ve been doing finals and stuff like that. It’s the time of the year where everybody’s pretty much working and we haven’t been practicing as much, so (I) haven’t really been around the guys.”
Brown said nobody besides the coaches had even asked him if he was opting out.
And those coaches? Well, they’ve been struggling to remember where they’ve been during this dizzying month. James Franklin said he just got off an airplane from a recruiting visit earlier Friday morning. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz gave a shoutout to the road crews who kept the icy roads plowed after he landed at the airport in the wee hours of Friday morning.
“As long as we stay out of the ditches, we’re going to be OK,” said Diaz, the former Miami coach.
While many fans and those outside the program wonder about everyone’s next step this time of the year, several players said they’re not pressing their teammates to figure out whether or not they’re playing or planning to head elsewhere. Thus far, Porter, who plans to enter the NFL Draft, is Penn State’s lone opt-out for the Rose Bowl. Washington, who also announced he’s entering the draft, was already done for the season due to injury.
Much can change in the weeks ahead, but it’s looking like Penn State may not be hit hard by opt-opts, unlike in last year’s Outback Bowl.
“In my mind, the way we built it at Penn State, there’s really no reason to opt out,” Franklin said. “We will be flexible with all of our guys. I want our guys to be as successful as they possibly can. I want the bowl experience to be a great experience. … I remember all the way back with Saquon (Barkley) in the Fiesta Bowl and having a conversation with him and his family about that game because he was getting some people advising him to opt out of the game.”
Brown said because it’s the Rose Bowl, his thoughts of potentially not playing in the game because of injury risk were short-lived. Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who missed half of the 2021 season with a knee injury, said he’s come too far to even consider skipping the bowl game.
“I’m not going to pass this up,” Mustipher said. “I understand the magnitude of this game, understand what’s at stake, understand that we can be one of them teams that gets this program back on track and trending in the right direction.”
Franklin said the team’s leaders continued to reiterate that they want to end the season the right way. As the practices shift from developmental to game-specific, it’s imperative that coaches and teammates know exactly who is planning on playing and who isn’t.
By the sounds of it, Penn State won’t be in for many surprises.
Takeaways from Penn State’s bowl media day
• Left tackle Olu Fashanu will be back for the 2023 season, and Penn State is optimistic he’ll be healthy enough to play in the Rose Bowl, Franklin said. Franklin added that they also expect to have right tackle Caedan Wallace and running back Keyvone Lee available for the game. Much can change in the weeks ahead, but that’s a positive development for all three, as none have played since October.
• There will be an opportunity for quarterback Drew Allar to take some reps with the starters this month, but the focus is on getting Sean Clifford ready for the Rose Bowl, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. Allar’s development will be crucial in the months ahead, and Yurcich said he’s “extremely happy” with the progress made by both Allar and classmate Beau Pribula this season. With Christian Veilleux in the transfer portal and incoming freshman Jaxon Smolik set to sign next week and enroll in January, all eyes will be on Allar soon enough.
“He’s really come along very well,” Yurcich said. “We’re just continuing to just press on the little things, the things that are controllable in the in the film room of identifications, continuing to press on the protections and the basics of quarterback play and to test and to see the things that he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand and try to find that threshold and continue to push on most things. But he’s pretty well-versed in everything, I’ll tell you that.”
• Diaz’s future has been a storyline this month, given the success of Penn State’s defense and his head coaching experience. Diaz said he still does have head coaching aspirations, but he added that he’s also not going to lunge at just any offer.
“This time of year is called silly season and it’s silly season for a reason,” Diaz said. “The great thing I have is I’ve got a great job and it would take an amazingly great job to leave a great job.”
The work Diaz did with the defense this season, especially in replacing a longtime Franklin confidant in Brent Pry, has been huge for Penn State. The idea was never that he’d be here for a long time, and Diaz’s success could open more doors. Whether it’s this coaching cycle or in the future remains to be seen, though most openings have been filled this year.
What could a potential second year under Diaz look like for this group?
“It’s gonna do a lot for us,” Isaac said. “A lot of the mistakes we made won’t be happening. A lot of guys will have a better understanding of a second year in the system.”
• There will be many decisions made after the Rose Bowl about who else heads to the NFL and who will return for an extra year thanks to the bonus season available to those who were on rosters during the 2020 season.
Defensive end Nick Tarburton said he’s “still kind of up in the air” on whether or not he’ll return for the extra season.
“It’s a lot of stuff that goes into it,” Tarburton said. “As far as talking it over with my family, my coaches, just trying to make the best decision, you know, and this is a life lifelong decision right here. So just trying to make sure that I get that right. But like I said, I’m just fully committed and fully focused on just winning this game.”
• Center Juice Scruggs accepted an invitation to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl, but he said hasn’t decided whether he’ll return for an extra season of eligibility. He plans to make that decision after playing in the Rose Bowl. While the showcase event invitation makes it look like he’ll be moving on, keep in mind that in the past it looked the same for Jaquan Brisker before he opted to return.
• Tight end Brenton Strange, who hauled in 32 receptions for 362 yards and five touchdowns this season, also has a decision to make. While Strange, like everyone else who spoke Friday, said he’s committed to playing in the Rose Bowl, he said he’s been receiving feedback about where he could be drafted.
“I’ve gotten all types of feedback,” he said. “It’s a life-changing decision, obviously. So I haven’t really made any decisions yet. But I expect the decision to be coming soon for sure.”
• Put Isaac in the wait-and-see category as well as far as future plans. Isaac said he’s been having conversations with numerous coaches about his strengths and weaknesses and is trying to gather as much information as possible.
“Some is positive, some is negative,” he said of what he’s been hearing. “It’s mainly just making sure my body is right and making sure my mental is right, just the regular ins and outs of making a decision.”
• It’s no secret Penn State has been targeting wide receivers in the transfer portal. Mitchell Tinsley was brought in last January from Western Kentucky to fill an immediate need. With Tinsley out of eligibility after the bowl game and Washington moving, on Taylor Stubblefield has to find another receiver or two who can help.
Penn State signed five receivers in the 2022 class. Those young players will have to play important roles moving forward.
“You see things in practice and some things in games where they’re promising without question, the ability is there, the talent is there,” Yurcich said of the younger receivers. “We just have to continue to get them reps. … Is there room to supplement? Yes, there is, and we’re looking into that right now.”
• Tinsley said he expects to continue handling punt returns, something Washington did all season before the injury. That is a role Penn State will need to fill this offseason. Some candidates could include receiver Kaden Saunders and cornerback Marquis Wilson. Saunders redshirted this season, and Wilson was introduced on senior day. It’s unclear if he’ll return for another season. Special teams coordinator Stacy Collins said Penn State needs to be more consistent in the return game in the future.
“What we’ve got to do is do a better job of being able to push the ball vertical and get space and really work to create and get that first first down and getting more positive yards from a return standpoint,” Collins said. “We’ve had multiple chances to block punts, we got one, and that’s a little frustrating because we’ve just come flat free on a couple.”
• Collins highlighted walk-on linebacker Dom DeLuca and wide receiver Malick Meiga for their work on special teams. He said DeLuca was “elite” this season and that he’d put Meiga in that same category.
• Penn State athletic director Pat Kraft said that Penn State’s assistant coach salary pool is in the top three in the Big Ten. That aligns with what Sandy Barbour had said before. Individual contracts for the assistant coaches are not made public.
Kraft spoke several times Friday about making sure Franklin has what he believes the Nittany Lions need to compete for a national championship. That includes things like the salary pool, facilities, training table and NIL. Kraft said Penn State is in a better place now with NIL than it was when he arrived in July.
“I’ve told James this: What do you need to be successful? What do we have to do to win a national championship?” Kraft said. “Keeping staff is critical. I think that’s important for not just James, but all of our teams.”
• Kraft said that in the past eight-plus years, 19 studies have been done on Beaver Stadium. Penn State is finally inching closer to figuring out the future of the 107,000-seat stadium.
Kraft said he hopes there will soon be a recommendation sent to Penn State’s board of trustees and president Neeli Bendapudi. A renovation was Barbour’s preference when she was in charge, and it continues to sound like a major renovation is the only realistic scenario in play.
“I’ll make no bones about it. I love this building,” Kraft said. “I want to make this building better and we have to do that. We’re very close. All the data is there. Now, it’s about figuring out the financial models and how it can work, what’s the recommendation.”
How will Penn State evolve Beaver Stadium? ‘We just need to make a decision’
(Top photo of Sean Clifford and PJ Mustipher: Matthew O’Haren / USA Today)