The line between the ideal and practical has been a blurry one for the Penn State football team over the past two seasons.
NCAA sanctions, including scholarship reductions and a transfer waiver that led to multiple defections, have left Penn State thin with scholarship talent and have forced the hands of two coaching staffs who have had to augment the team’s depth with freshmen each of the past two years.
As head coach James Franklin has said, redshirting all incoming freshmen is ideal.
But for The Nittany Lions, who had 40 recruited scholarship players returning at the start of 2014, it isn’t practical.
Like his predecessor Bill O’Brien, Franklin has had to make tough choices whether to play true freshmen or allow them time to develop away from the pressures of gameday environments and the stresses of heavy expectations.
Playing now is not necessarily a bad thing, but Franklin knows it could be.
“You put him in there and he’s not ready, does that help him in his development and does that help the program long term?” Franklin said. “Those are the decisions that we’re trying to make. Are there some exceptions to the rule? There is no doubt about it. We’re willing to do the exception when we think it’s the right thing to do.”
Some of these freshmen were going to play either way out of necessity. It was a selling point both Franklin and Bill O’Brien in recruiting and it’s become a talking point and an ongoing trend for the last two years.
This season the Nittany Lions have used nine true freshmen while 11 other redshirt freshmen have made their debuts. Meanwhile, 14 true freshmen started in O’Brien’s final year. Now, they are some of Penn State’s more experienced players considering 57 of the 118 Nittany Lions who traveled to Dublin, Ireland for the season opener had never played a snap.
The offensive line and wide receiver corps have been the hardest hit by turnover and the scholarship losses. Penn State has just one upperclassman offensive tackle — junior Donovan Smith — and just two upperclassmen receivers — Geno Lewis and Matt Zanellato — who were recruited scholarship players at their positions.
It’s no coincidence Penn State’s offense has struggled and is still seeking its identity 11 weeks into the season. The Nittany Lions (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) are doing so as a handful of first-year players try to develop on the fly while handling heavy workloads and responsibilities usually reserved for players who’ve had more than one season to learn on the sideline and develop on the practice fields.
Tackle Andrew Nelson and guard Brendan Mahon are redshirt freshman and will play in just their ninth game together when Penn State travels to Indiana to play the Hoosiers on Saturday. In a depth-building move, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, who have been in the program for an additional year, were moved from the defensive line to offense so Penn State could use redshirt seasons for four true freshmen offensive linemen.
As Franklin put it, it’s unrealistic to expect those players — Noah Beh, Chasz Wright, Chance Sorrell and Brendan Brosnan — to suit up without time to properly adjust. Franklin could say the same for Nelson and Mahon, too.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are guys that play as true freshmen,” Franklin said. “There are guys that play as redshirt freshmen. There are the exceptions. But in general rule on the offensive line, you’d love to be in a position where they’re redshirt sophomores where they’re really starting to have an impact in starting. That’s not always the case. You’re not always able to do that.”
Recently, an injury to Smith forced Penn State to shuffle its offensive linemen — Nelson’s now protecting Christian Hackenberg’s blindside at left tackle and center Angelo Mangiro moved to right tackle. Right now it’s a safer alternative to keeping them in their familiar spots and replacing injured players with actual backups who are true freshmen.
“We could play the three true freshmen as backups, rather than moving the offensive line around to five different positions when one guy goes down,” Franklin said. “But is that really in our program’s best interest long term, and is that fair to that young man as well when he may not be ready? That’s what you’re really trying to decide and what you’re really trying to manage.”
Nelson considers himself lucky to have had at least one year to observe and learn behind Smith, Garry Gilliam and Adam Gress. It almost didn’t turn out that way.
Before Penn State’s second game against Eastern Michigan last season, O’Brien pulled Nelson aside and told him to be ready. During the game, Nelson was so close to playing he actually ran onto the field to line up at one of the guard spots before he was pulled back at the last second.
Now that he has eight physically demanding and emotionally draining games under his belt, Nelson said he’s glad his goal of starting as a true freshman didn’t happen.
“Thankfully I made it through the whole season and was able to redshirt,” Nelson said. “Because as I’ve gotten experience this year and played this year, I don’t think I was particularly ready to play last year, mostly just mentally because of adjusting to the atmosphere of college and school and things like that.”
He said he’s still learning new things every game, too.
“It’s really good for anybody who redshirts just be able to start understanding how you go about your daily life in college and not having all these extra stresses along with your first year of major college football,” Nelson said.
While Penn State’s true freshmen wideouts don’t face the same level of wear-and-tear their teammates along the line do, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall have also faced a steep learning curve. Count true freshman tight end Mike Gesicki, who like Godwin and Blacknall has played in every game, in that group.
“I think in an ideal situation you would like to create depth on your team where you never have to count on a freshman playing significant reps,” wide receivers coach Josh Gattis said. “What I mean is, if you’re going to play a freshman, have that freshman be a guy that can be in a backup role that can gain confidence rather than a freshman that you’re having to put out there for 40, 50 reps througout a game and really rely on.”
But, all three have played heavy snap counts thus far.
Franklin and Gattis planned for that before the season, relying on Franklin’s red-yellow-green evaluation system to determine a true freshman’s potential availability.
Both players, labeled as yellows — or players with a good possibility of playing in the early days of training camp — quickly were given the green light to play after impressive training camps. Godwin has 14 catches for 124 yards while Blacknall has seven for 60 and scored the offense’s lone regulation touchdown against Ohio State on a nice individual effort.
They still have plenty to learn, Gattis said. Their blocking, route-running and ability to diagnose and recognize different coverages could surely be better.
That’s to be expected of true freshmen, however.
“Usually, once you see guys hit their second and third year, they really kind of develop who they are as far as in their receiver position,” Gattis said. “The first year you come in and kind of develop how to be a wide receiver and in that second and third year you develop that savvy as who you are as a wide receiver.”
With four games remaining, Penn State’s young roster — the second youngest in all of college football with 76 underclassmen — will continue to grow physically and mentally with experience. Eventually, Franklin and the rest of the staff hope all the experience his green crop of youngsters will pay off. Winning breeds confidence and the Penn State coach understands well that positive performances over the final third of the season should boost their confidence.
That’s what they need most, Gattis said.
“It’s not an ideal situation to have these freshmen out there playing more than 50 percent of your reps,” Gattis said. “But I’m really pleased with the group of guys that we have playing.”