STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — While Penn State signed a top-20 recruiting class in February, very few members are expected to play Sept. 3 against Kent State.
Coach James Franklin said three true freshmen have earned a “green light” for the Golden Flashes. If only three (or fewer) play against Kent State, it will be a positive example of the program-building Franklin and his staff have been doing while the team tries to move forward after NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The three players are running back Miles Sanders, offensive lineman Connor McGovern and punter Blake Gillikin.
“If we tag a guy as green, we’re saying he is a go from the first game,” Franklin said. “A yellow is a guy that we’re going to try and hold the redshirt if we can, but if we have any injuries or feel there is a need, they’ll play. Then red is a guy we’re planning on redshirting.”
Penn State is back to a full allotment of 85 scholarship players in 2016. Other prominent programs, such as Southern California recently and Alabama in the early 2000s, have shown the path back to normalcy doesn’t end when the NCAA sanctions do.
Having to play fewer freshmen is a big step, though. Penn State played nine true freshmen in 2014, Franklin’s first year in charge. Seven of them ended up starting games. Seven redshirt freshmen also played.
The number of true freshmen who played in 2015 declined to five, but 17 redshirt freshmen also saw action. The opening game in 2015 against Temple also was an example of how quickly “Plan A” can be forgotten.
“I think (linebackers) Manny (Bowen) and (Jake) Cooper, if I remember correctly, were reds who became greens during the first game on the sideline,” Franklin said. “You can go from red to yellow or yellow to green or even red to green based on the circumstances. Hopefully we won’t have a whole lot of that this year.”
Sanders was rated the No. 1 running back in the nation by the 247Sports composite rankings. He would play at any school in the country, even places that have two established options like LSU, Georgia and Oklahoma. He’s not going to start, but is in the mix for carries after Saquon Barkley and return work on special teams.
McGovern has been competing for a starting job on the offensive line. He was the No. 3 center in the class of 2016 but would likely play at one of the guard spots.
The three players Franklin mentioned in the “yellow light” group were all offensive linemen: Michal Menet, Will Fries and Alex Gellerstedt.
Gillikin was the No. 2 punter in his class, but he isn’t a lock to handle punts this season.
“We kept stats on every punt,” Franklin said. “The average get-off, the average hang time, the average distance, and really, him and Daniel Pasquariello have done a great job. There’s still time to make sure that stays consistent, but so far, (Gillikin)’s done a really good job. Whether he’s the starting punter, or whether he’ll rotate, we’ll see.”
It’s a sign of progress for Penn State that Menet, the nation’s No. 1 guard, and Shane Simmons, a top-five defensive end and the No. 1 player in the state of Pennsylvania, are not already “green light” guys. Sure, they could play this season, but the Nittany Lions don’t need them at this point.
There is far more depth on the offensive line than the previous two seasons. That’s a big indicator that some stability has returned for the program. Not needing to rely on a bunch of freshmen would be another.