Penn State Football

How one Penn State freshman has ‘earned the right’ to significant playing time

Pat Freiermuth is the oldest true freshman in Penn State’s program. The tight end even has a few weeks — in some cases, months — on second-year Nittany Lions like Lamont Wade, KJ Hamler and Tariq Castro-Fields.

Freiermuth turns 20 on Oct. 28, a day before Penn State hosts Ohio State. And who knows? Maybe he gets a belated birthday gift against the Buckeyes: His first collegiate start.

The Massachusetts native — who spent five years at the high school level, transferring from Pentucket after his freshman year to the Brooks School, a private, prep academy in North Andover — isn’t like most true freshmen. And that has put him in position to push for Penn State’s starting tight end job.

“His physical maturity is probably a little bit ahead of where a normal true freshman would be, and with that comes a little bit of emotional maturity,” tight ends coach Tyler Bowen said. “He’s come in and had a blue-collar approach to his collegiate experience so far, and I think that’s why you’re seeing him get some playing time.”

Added head coach James Franklin: “It hasn’t seemed too big for him. And he’s approached it the right way.”

Freiermuth — a 6-foot-5, 258-pound force — sits third on the Nittany Lions’ depth chart behind redshirt junior Jonathan Holland and redshirt sophomore Danny Dalton. Holland started against Appalachian State and Pittsburgh, and he’ll likely be the first tight end on the field this weekend, too.

But that doesn’t mean Holland will end up with the most snaps. Last weekend, it was Freiermuth who logged 27 snaps, followed by Holland (24) and Dalton (17).

There isn’t a huge gap there, and that makes sense. Penn State’s tight end situation is still classified as a committee approach. Of course, that isn’t ideal. While Bowen believes the philosophy is working through two games, Franklin said the committee will continue only until “someone clearly takes hold of the job and creates a separation.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. But Freiermuth is slowly making strides.

In the passing game, Freiermuth has something to prove. He made his first career catch at Pitt, a 5-yard out, but that’s it. Bowen isn’t concerned, though. If downfield opportunities come the freshman’s way, Bowen said, “We expect him to seize them.”

In the running game, the Massachusetts native is “a big, strong, physical guy” and has been “playing like it,” per Franklin. Against Pitt, Freiermuth sprung Miles Sanders loose on a would-be 79-yard run if not for Brandon Polk’s block in the back. He was on the field for Penn State’s quick scoring drive before halftime and featured in two tight end sets with Holland in short yardage and red zone situations.

It’s telling that Bowen and Franklin have the confidence in Freiermuth to be out there, whether the team is backed up against its own end zone or driving on an in-state foe, looking to put Pitt away. Bowen said he trusts all three of his tight end options. But there is something unique about a true freshman, in Franklin’s words, “pushing” Holland and Dalton and bringing “out the best in all of them.”

Freiermuth is hardly alone in the impact rookie camp. Look no further than Micah Parsons or Jake Pinegar. But on the offensive side of the ball, Freiermuth is the only true freshman flirting with a starting gig. That’s noteworthy — even if he is older than a quarter of his teammates.

“Right now, the coaches have a lot of confidence in him,” Franklin said. “And I think you’ll see his role continue to grow as long as he keeps approaching it the way he has so far.”