Penn State played nine true freshmen in 2014, which was James Franklin’s first season as coach. The Nittany Lions needed five this past season, though one was a walk-on.
As Franklin’s staff prepares for the 2017 as defending Big Ten champions with one of the most experienced rosters in the conference, the need to play true freshmen has been greatly diminished as the talent base has been replenished in the wake of NCAA sanctions.
“In the past we had guys coming in, and they walked in and they were in the two-deep, where now it’s going to be iron sharpens iron,” Franklin said on National Signing Day. “It’s going to be walk on campus and compete like crazy. We’re going to play freshmen. That’s something that we’re committed to doing. We’re going to play the best players, whether they’re freshmen, seniors, returning starters or not.
“It’s not like we have glaring holes now like we did before. I think we’ve done a really good job of solving problems.”
One of the true freshmen who played in 2016 was punter Blake Gillikin. Connor McGovern became the starter at right guard after the team’s 2-2 start. Cam Brown was pressed into duty because of three injuries at linebacker.
Miles Sanders wasn’t a need-based participant. He was the No. 1 running back in the country in his class, and his talent dictated early playing time.
That’s where Penn State wants to be, where the Nittany Lions have recruited well enough to not need the first-year guys to contribute, although some are talented enough and able to contribute right away.
That’s where Penn State should be in 2017. The only spots on the roster that might be an injury or two away from needing a true freshman are punter and tight end. If Gillikin got hurt, walk-on freshman Carson Landis might have a shot at replacing him, though there are two other punters on the roster and Tyler Davis could also handle the duties, if needed.
Penn State didn’t sign any tight ends in this class, so it will play the season with three scholarship guys at the position and a couple of walk-ons.
Which members of the 2017 recruiting class squeeze their way onto the depth chart and earn playing time next season? Here are a few:
Lamont Wade, cornerback
This is the obvious one. Wade is the top-rated prospect in the class, a top-50 player nationally and a 5-star cornerback by one of the major recruiting services.
Penn State returns its top four cornerbacks from 2016, plus two other 4-star recruits from recent classes, but Wade’s talent could be too great to keep him off the field. He’s already on campus and will be able to participate in spring practice.
“He’s not the biggest player, but his heart is so gigantic,” Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith said of Wade. “He’s a competitor and he refuses to lose and those are the kind of guys you need in the locker room. Those are the Trace McSorleys of the world. It doesn’t matter what their circumstance is, they’re just going to play hard and they’re going to get the job done.”
Smith, a former high school coach in Pittsburgh, said he’s been recruiting Wade for four years – first at Temple and now at Penn State. He said Wade will likely have a chance to play on both sides of the ball during his career – Wade is one of the top rushers in Pennsylvania history – and on special teams.
At first, the coaching staff is going to want him to focus on defense. Smith said one avenue to early playing time could be as the team’s slot corner in the nickel package. It’s also possible that one of those four corners from last year could move to strong safety to replace Malik Golden. Or maybe Wade ends up in that competition as well.
Brelin Faison-Walden, linebacker
Ellis Brooks and Brailyn Franklin should get a mention here as well. Any of the three linebackers signed might have an outside chance at not redshirting. Faison-Walden has a head start because he’s already enrolled and will take part in spring practice.
Penn State lost three starting linebackers to injury by Week 4 last year. The Nittany Lions are definitely going to be deeper here next year. There probably won’t be any moves, such as shifting Koa Farmer from safety and Jonathan Thomas from running back.
They have six experienced options at linebacker right now: Jason Cabinda, Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper, Brandon Smith, Brown and Farmer. The freshmen could be one injury away from a chance to crack the two-deep, though.
“Faison-Walden brings athleticism, brings speed, similar in an aspect to Manny Bowen,” Smith said. “We expect him to be a guy that can go sideline to sideline. Ellis Brooks is a bigger guy, he’s not as tall but he’s thick more like a SAM, in-a-box type of guy. Then Brailyn Franklin can play either the outside or the SAM or the WILL. So, they bring some athleticism to us and we just feel like those three guys are going to upgrade our position depth.”
C.J. Thorpe, guard
Penn State’s offensive line is much deeper and more talented than it was when Franklin arrived. That said, Thorpe is a top-100 player in his recruiting class and has some attributes that could allow him to play next year.
“Thorpe is a grown man,” Franklin said. “He’s got something that I think most coaches are looking for. It’s hard to find. He’s an offensive lineman with a nastiness to him. He plays with a really nasty demeanor. He wants to finish it. He wants to be physical. When you can find guys like that, they’re really valuable.”
There is also more depth at tackle than on the interior. Penn State lost starting center Brian Gaia, plus two top interior reserves – Wendy Laurent and Derek Dowrey – to graduation. Granted, the solution could be to just move a couple of tackles inside.
If Ryan Bates stays at tackle after kicking out for the final few games of the season because of injuries, there might only be one scholarship player in front of Thorpe at either guard position.
Yetur Matos, defensive end
Penn State has to replace both of its starting defensive ends from last season. The top three reserves – Terrance Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz – return. There are three redshirt freshmen who will be in the mix, including highly-touted prospect Shane Simmons.
That doesn’t mean Matos couldn’t force his way into a spot in the rotation.
“I know this sounds ridiculous – but you say the sleeper of the class … he may be the sleeper of the class,” Franklin said. “I know he’s a 4-star recruit, all that kind of stuff. He came to camp and ran one of the more ridiculous times that I ever timed a guy for the position he plays. He’s just going to get bigger. He’s just going to get stronger. He’s going to get more explosive. He’s 6-5, 240 pounds right now and he’s playing basketball. We’re really, really excited about him.”