With the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, which allows players to compete in up to four games and still redshirt, Penn State’s true freshmen have the ability to play a larger role than ever before.
So, after watching portions of practice and speaking with players and coaches, here are the five Penn State true freshmen we think have the potential to break out:
LB Micah Parsons
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Parsons came in as one of the most-heralded recruits to ever commit to the Nittany Lions, and he’s done nothing to indicate he was overrated. Teammates have consistently referred to him as a “beast,” and he should see significant time in 2018.
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Will he start Week 1? Probably not. But he’ll still figure into the rotation early on and, if he can absorb the playbook and learn his assignments, the high school DE-turned-college LB should watch his time increase as the season progresses. Don’t be surprised if he earns a starting spot later in the year. He’s as close to a lock for the All-Big Ten freshman team that Penn State’s ever had.
WR Justin Shorter
Call him Juwan Johnson Jr., and you wouldn’t be far off. Even quarterback Trace McSorley said as much.
“They’re honestly pretty similar,” McSorley said Wednesday night. “Justin’s maybe a little more filled out; he’s closer to the 220 range than probably Juwan was when he first got here. Juwan was a little lankier, but they’re both big, fast and create size problems for our defensive backs, and they both run really good routes. And both came in with a really good mentality for freshmen, so there’s definitely a lot of parallels to be made there.”
The official roster lists Johnson as 6-foot-4 and 231 pounds to Shorter’s 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds. His ceiling this season is likely as the No. 3 WR target but, no matter what, he’ll likely earn time as part of the two-deep.
DT PJ Mustipher
You don’t rack up 45 career sacks in high school without being an athletic force. Mustipher has both that and the size, as he stands at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds. The Maryland native has earned rave reviews at every turn — including again after practice Wednesday night.
“He shocked me for real,” defensive end Shareef Miller said. “For him to be a true freshman at defensive tackle, like, he doesn’t look like he’s a freshman. And he’s catching on with the plays, and he’s playing good against the older guys.”
There’s plenty of competition at defensive tackle, but there’s also plenty of opportunity. Mustipher has the ability to earn a role in the rotation immediately, and he could eventually remind Penn State fans of Austin Johnson.
LB Jesse Luketa
He’s been overshadowed a bit by the Parsons Hype Train, but the linebacker is still competing to be a part of the two-deep in 2018.
Teammates have often compared his mentality to longtime leader Jason Cabinda, and his maturity is exceptional for a 19-year-old. The early enrollee left his home in Canada at the age of 13 or 14 to attend boarding school in America — and to chase his football-playing dream.
“I think Jesse Luketa is making a move,” coach James Franklin said after practice Wednesday. “I think that semester early for him has really been beneficial.”
Penn State has a lot of depth at linebacker; it’s just not very experienced. So, while there’s no guarantee Luketa will avoid a redshirt, he’s still a player who’s primed to make an impact down the road. And he’s done well so far to show his leadership ability while remaining heady about the defense.
K Jake Pinegar/Vlad Hilling
Yes, we’re cheating by listing two kickers — but there’s an obvious opportunity here, and both kickers could still play a role.
Franklin has said before that he’d ideally like one player to focus on kickoffs while another can focus on field goals and extra points. And the kickers here have progressed enough that punter Blake Gillikin no longer has to worry about booting it through the uprights.
Pinegar is on scholarship, and Hilling is a walk-on — but that doesn’t necessarily mean Pinegar has the edge. Hilling was 46-of-46 on extra points as a high school senior, and he was 10 of 12 on field goals. Although the stat sheet says his long last year was 41 yards, he nailed a 52-yarder that didn’t count because the other team jumped offsides — and he broke Robbie Gould’s old record in the Big 33 Football Classic by crushing a 56-yard field goal that probably would’ve been good from 61 yards.
Pinegar, an Iowa native, is no slouch either. ESPN ranked him as the eighth-best kicker prospect in the nation, writing that he has “one of the strongest kickoff legs in the country.” ESPN’s scouts added that he has “the ability to develop into one of the most athletic specialists nationwide.” That’s pretty high praise and, after a sub-par spring for the kickers, these two new additions should start Week 1.