Miles Sanders called his own shot in the spring when he said he expected to show Penn State coaches and teammates he could play as a freshman.
On Wednesday, head coach James Franklin announced that the freshman running back has earned “green-light status,” as have offensive lineman Connor McGovern and punter Blake Gillikin.
With young players, Penn State operates on a stoplight system. “Green” means they are immediately activated to play, “yellow” means a redshirt is certainly an option but not set in stone and “red” means the player will certainly be redshirted in their first season with the team.
Sanders arrived at Penn State in the fall as one of the highest-ranked running backs in the nation. Franklin said he is in the rotation to back up feature runner Saquon Barkley alongside redshirt freshman Andre Robinson and redshirt sophomore Mark Allen.
McGovern arrived on campus as an early enrollee in January, and has since impressed with his adaption to the collegiate learning curve. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, he has been getting reps at right tackle and even a few at center and left tackle throughout the fall.
“Obviously (he) is in a different situation because he came in as a freshman but had graduated early (from high school),” said Franklin. “McGovern came in a powerful, strong guy. He’s already over 300 pounds.”
Perhaps the most intriguing to fans is the development of Penn State’s special teams unit with the addition of Gillikin. Franklin said he will almost certainly be playing in the season opener, but he isn’t sure whether the freshman will start, and returning punter Daniel Pasquariello will also see time.
These three players earning green lights doesn’t mean that other new faces won’t get in games this season, however.
“If we tag a guy a green, we’re basically saying ‘He’s a go from the first game,’” said Franklin. “… A red is a guy we’re planning on redshirting, but if I remember correctly, last year (linebackers) Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper were both reds who became greens in the first game on the sideline. So you can go from yellow to green, or even red to green. … It depends on the circumstances.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley was announced as Penn State football’s starting quarterback after practice on Wednesday, but junior linebacker Jason Cabinda figured it out long before that.
“(Trace) has really taken charge of that position,” he said. “He really worked hard this offseason. When (Christian) Hackenberg left, he really took charge of that offense and made sure that it was his deal. He did that. Made a lot of plays this camp, you know, really solidified himself in that position. He showed that promise.”
Franklin made no official announcement to the team, but Cabinda said a majority of the team knew it was official based on rumblings on Twitter.
“For the most part, everybody really agrees with the decision,” he said.
Maybe the biggest moment of clarity for Cabinda was a play McSorley made during fall camp.
“It just felt like we had him bottled up,” said Cabinda. “And I remember he just got out of there, was running toward the sideline and was literally squared up with the sideline but then he made a throw to the corner of the end zone to (DaeSean Hamilton).
“And you think about that and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s not the kind of play we could’ve made last year.’”
Offensive line taking shape
The team’s first official depth chart comes out Monday, but if it were to be released after Wednesday night’s practice the offensive line would be set with redshirt junior Brendan Mahon at left tackle (he is most experienced in prior years on the right), redshirt freshman Ryan Bates at left guard, fifth-year senior Brian Gaia at center, fifth-year senior Derek Dowrey at right guard and redshirt senior Andrew Nelson at right tackle.
“That’s where it sits right now, but we’re still kind of moving some things around,” said Franklin. “(Freshman Michal) Menet has done some nice things, obviously some guys that have played in the past like Paris Palmer, you know, Will Fries has done some nice things. … But right now, that’s probably the five that have started to separate themselves a bit.”