Penn State football transfer portal review: How Nittany Lions look heading into 2024

Penn State Spring Football Game
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The final transfer portal window of the 2024 offseason is now in the rearview mirror. While players who are still floating in the portal can still join a program, Penn State football's depth chart is practically set in stone ahead of this upcoming season.

In what is head coach James Franklin’s 11th season at the helm in Happy Valley, Penn State will aim to finally get over the hump and reach the College Football Playoff.

Here are some thoughts on how the Nittany Lions’ offseason roster moves will impact that goal.

Did the WR room improve or take a step back?

Penn State lost four wideouts to the portal this cycle — most notably KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who led the Nittany Lions in receptions (53) and receiving yards (673) this past season. Penn State also saw Cristian Driver and Dante Cephas pack their bags this past winter after transferring to Minnesota and Kansas State, respectively.

It can be argued that Lambert-Smith, who is now an Auburn Tiger, will be the only one somewhat missed, but even that's a stretch considering his limited production and inability to be a true difference maker as the “WR1” on offense.

Franklin and the Lions filled these vacancies by signing former five-star high school prospect Julian Fleming (Ohio State) in hopes that he can be the offense’s true top wideout and a legitimate mismatch on the perimeter down the stretch. The other top option is Harrison Wallace III, who flashed in the spring game and could be a reliable possession receiver, but the depth at the position is still concerning.

Where the Nittany Lions do have depth is at running back and tight end. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen combined for 40 receptions and 389 yards out of the backfield last season, while Tyler Warren and Khalil Dinkins are two toolsy pass-catching tight ends who can also make an impact downfield. 

How new offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki, who only used a three-wide receiver set on 40.7 percent of Kansas’ offensive snaps in 2023, will utilize these playmakers and distribute the ball through the air while being supplied with a rather unproven wide receiver corps is the question.

And sure, quarterback Drew Allar’s numbers were a bit underwhelming this past season, but he was not given a great supporting cast. Not a single player had over 1,000 receiving yards and Penn State’s receivers had a 10.8% drop rate, which was the fifth-worst in the Power Five in 2023.

Something needs to change. 

If Kotelnicki is the answer for this Nittany Lion offense, he could elevate this offense to new heights that gives Penn State fans flashes of the Saquon Barkley-Trace McSorley era. Who will step up in the passing game is the hot topic. All in all, I’d say that the wide receiver room remained the same from a talent standpoint, but Fleming’s possible emergence could trump that statement.

New-look secondary

The Penn State defense was nothing short of elite in 2023. While the unit ranked second in total defense, the secondary finished 11th in the FBS in passing yards per game allowed (181.6). The only problem this year is that the Nittany Lions lost key defensive backs Kalen King, Johnny Dixon, and Daequan Hardy. 

Franklin and Co. addressed these departures by signing two notable SEC cornerbacks in the winter portal — former five-star A.J. Harris (Georgia) and Jalen Kimber (Florida). They join a young secondary that will include cornerback Cam Miller and safeties Kevin Winston Jr. and Zakee Wheatley. 

Penn State recently took a tough blow when safety King Mack, the highest-rated defensive player in the team’s 2023 recruiting class, entered the transfer portal this past week. Despite primarily being a special teams player this past season, Mack was projected to fill in as a plug-and-play nickelback in 2023 alongside Jaylen Reed and/or be a key part of the defensive backfield rotation. It’s a big loss for new defensive coordinator Tom Allen’s secondary which now needs other unproven safeties to step up.

General consensus 

There’s no question that Penn State lost a chunk of production to the NFL draft and transfer portal, but what the program did do is attempt to plug the biggest holes in their depth chart at wide receiver and in the secondary. The depth at those two position groups is still cloudy, yet the additions of Kotelnicki and Allen to command both sides of the ball leaves a trail of optimism that points toward Penn State potentially taking a step forward in 2024.

While Franklin has endured success and turned Penn State into a top-notch program once again (four 11-win seasons since 2016), he has yet to sniff a national championship. The Nittany Lions are 21-5 the past two seasons but only 1-4 against top-10 teams over that span.

In the same vein, the program has had a serious Ohio State and Michigan problem — going 4-16 against the two Big Ten rivals since Franklin took over in 2014. This could be a make-or-break year for the head coach, especially if Penn State fails to make the now 12-team College Football Playoff.

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