UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Youth will be served early and often for Penn State during the 2018 season as their depth chart features 17 true freshmen.
The Week 1 depth chart features initial answers to the questions that plagued Franklin and company during the first few weeks of camp at linebacker, defensive line and tight end.
As for those freshmen, James Franklin named six of the seven true freshman who are “green-lighted” to play more than the four game limit to get a redshirt.
Linebackers Jesse Luketa and Micah Parsons headline the “green-light” list, followed by defensive end P.J. Mustipher, running back Ricky Slade, tight end Pat Freiermuth and kicker Jake Pinegar. Pinegar will be handling field goal responsibilities, and freshman Rafael Checa will be doing the kickoff duties. One could assume Checa is among the seven on the “green-light” lists.
Those freshmen will add to an already-athletic roster, and as they continue to gain game experience, they will provide Penn State quality depth that has been hard to find in quite some time.
That depth and athleticism will come in handy as the Nittany Lions face a daunting Big Ten schedule that features games against No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 11 Michigan State at home and No. 14 Michigan on the road.
With Luketa and Parsons in the linebacker rotation, it gives the Nittany Lions a lot of athleticism and inexperience at the position. While those two won’t start right away, they will be getting plenty of playing time as the fall moves forward.
They will join a rotation that includes Koa Farmer at the Will, Jan Johnson at the Mike and Cam Brown at the Sam. Those three have a plethora of experience at their disposal and give Franklin and company a knowledgeable first group of linebackers to deploy. Also factoring into the linebacker mix will be redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks, who currently is listed as the backup Mike.
“I think Koa [Farmer] has done a good job, played a lot of football, and I think Micah is making a strong push there, and then I think Jan, between Ellis and Luketa, there’s going to be a strong push there, and you’re going to see a lot of guys rotating and getting time,” Franklin said during his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon.
The defensive ends are in good shape with Shareef Miller and Yetur Gross-Matos leading the way as starters and having Shane Simmons, Shaka Toney and true freshman Jayson Oweh in the rotation. At defensive tackle, though, it’s another story.
Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor will be starting inside for the Nittany Lions, but after that, there’s a lot of youth and inexperience. They’ll be backed up by Mustipher, redshirt freshman Fred Hansard and redshirt sophomores Antonio Shelton and Ellison Jordan.
“At defensive tackle, I think we’ve still got some questions here. I think we feel a lot better than we did coming into the camp,” Franklin said. “I think we feel like we have a lot of depth, but who are the guys that are really going to take on the responsibility and say we are the five guys that are going to play a lot in the rotation? Has there been clear separation? I don’t know if there necessarily is with that right now.”
The return of John Reid at cornerback gives an already-experienced unit even more seasoning at the cornerback position. Reid joins Amani Oruwariye, who had four interceptions last season, as starting corners.
Also in the cornerback rotation will be Tariq Castro-Fields and redshirt freshman Donovan Johnson. Castro-Fields recorded a pick and three pass break-ups during his freshman season in 2017.
At safety, it will be Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor filling the roles of Troy Apke and Marcus Allen, who are now in the NFL. Behind Scott and Taylor will be Lamont Wade, who made the move to safety from corner this off-season, and Ayron Monroe.
QUARTERBACKS, RUNNING BACKS
The Penn State offense comes into the season with many positions settled prior to camp, beginning with quarterback Trace McSorley returning and running back Miles Sanders taking over for Saquon Barkley.
McSorley will be backed up by Tommy Stevens, and Sanders will have Slade and Mark Allen behind him when he needs a blow. Slade will figure prominently in the return game on kickoffs alongside KJ Hamler.
Redshirt senior DeAndre Thompkins, redshirt junior Juwan Johnson and Hamler will make up the starting rotation at receiver. The receivers group also will have Cam Sullivan-Brown, Brandon Polk, and Mac Hippenhammer in the second rotation, giving them an athletic group with impeccable ball skills.
True freshmen Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter, both of whom had impressive training camps, according to Franklin, also could be in the mix as the season continues.
The biggest question mark coming into camp for the Nittany Lions was at the tight end position, where they are replacing Mike Gesicki. For now, the starter will be Jonathan Holland or Danny Dalton with Freiermuth getting some time at the position as well. It also would not be a surprise to see Nick Bowers involved in some way early in the season.
“I would say our tight ends are a lot like our D-tackles. I think we are talented at both those positions, but we still have a lot of question marks because we’re just relying on so many guys that haven’t played a whole lot of football for us at this point,” Franklin said.
Much has been made about the depth at offensive line, a former weakness for the Penn State offense, and Franklin has settled on what he believes are six starters who can impact each game. It is a massive unit with all six starters at 6-foot-4 or taller.
“I think right now, we’re very comfortable with the six guys that we have listed,” Franklin said. “[Chasz] Wright and [Will] Fries, that will probably be a gameday decision, but the reality of it is, we feel like we can play and play well with either one of those guys. Neither one has completely separated themselves from the other, and a lot of times when that happens, you’re concerned because you’re not sure if you have one starter. I actually think we have two.”
Joining Wright and Fries will be Ryan Bates at left tackle, Steven Gonzales at left guard, Michal Menet at center and Connor McGovern at right guard. All of those linemen received considerable playing time in 2017, and Wright, Fries, Bates, Gonzales and McGovern started multiple games.
Even at the kicking position, the Nittany Lions have a multitude of depth. They will deploy a different player for each of the three kicking duties during games — Checa on kickoffs, Pinegar on field goals and junior Blake Gillikin punting.
That trio is joined by freshmen Vlad Hilling and Cade Pollard, as well as redshirt sophomore Justin Tobin as depth options should one of them suffer an injury. Having players of their quality helped make for an entertaining competition during camp when they battled for starting roles.
“We really feel like that [Jake] Pinegar, [Vlad] Hilling, [Justin] Tobin and [Rafael] Checa could all kick in a game for us, whether that was kickoff or field goal, and be able to do it at a fairly high level,” Franklin said. “The competition at practice has been really good, so I think that helps.”