Penn State football has won 20 of its past 23 games, claiming a Big Ten championship and Fiesta Bowl victory during this run. A significant test awaits the Nittany Lions in 2018 as coach James Franklin must replace several notable players who contributed toward his team’s recent rise.
College football squads that consistently compete for conference titles and College Football Playoff inclusion don’t rebuild. They reload. This is why recruiting plays a pivotal role in putting together rosters year after year that result in sustained success.
Penn State wrapped up its most successful recruiting class of the modern rankings era last Wednesday, adding 4-star tackle Rasheed Walker to a group that includes 12 signees considered top-10 overall prospects at their positions in composite rankings. The Nittany Lions welcomed six of these athletes to campus in January as early enrollees, while the rest will arrive in Happy Valley this summer.
Plenty of attention this offseason has been, and will continue to be, dedicated to question marks.
How will Penn State replace running back Saquon Barkley? Safety Marcus Allen? Linebacker Jason Cabinda? Tight end Mike Gesicki? Receiver DaeSean Hamilton?
We don’t fully know the answers midway through February and, in some cases, clarity may not come until autumn. Still, the influx of an outstanding 2018 recruiting class obviously creates speculation about which Nittany Lions newcomers could be capable of filling roles during their first collegiate campaign.
It’s important to note 18 of the 21 recruits Franklin signed in 2017 ultimately redshirted last season. A crowded collection of up-and-comers creates a clouded path toward playing time this year, but here’s our earliest projection of five Penn State freshmen capable of claiming immediate responsibilities.
TE Zack Kuntz
Mike Gesicki leaves behind a substantial void at tight end. The NFL-bound standout was part of Penn State’s offensive attack during each of Franklin’s first four seasons in State College and proved to be among college football’s most difficult covers during his final two seasons.
The returning group of veteran Penn State tight ends isn’t exactly loaded with game-day experience, so it appears there is an opportunity for either of the Nittany Lions freshmen at the position to make an early case for reps. Pat Freiermuth, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound prospect, is perhaps more physically advanced at this stage, but Zack Kuntz is an athletic freak and arrived on campus last month.
Kuntz, who currently competes at 6-7, 230 pounds, collected nearly 3,000 receiving yards at Camp Hill (Pa.) High School, catching 26 touchdown passes in the process. He’s opened eyes since enrolling at Penn State.
“I already see him packing [pounds] on and he came in stronger than we anticipated,” Franklin said last week. “So he’s already put on muscle mass. He’s already getting stronger in the weight room. We already knew he ran well because he ran so well in camp.”
Micah Parsons is the complete package for Penn State as it attempts to fill crucial roles in an evolving linebacker corps. Considered one of America’s premier defensive prospects, there was plenty of speculation about whether he would land at linebacker or defensive end.
Franklin cleared things up Dec. 20 after Parsons picked the Nittany Lions over schools such as Georgia, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
“There is no doubt in my mind he could play defensive end. We have a challenge that we need to solve some linebacker depth issues that we have,” Franklin said. “We think with him graduating early, he’s got a chance to kind of learn it and have a chance to truly compete for the job come the fall. So it’s a combination of both. It’s a talent, but it’s also a need.”
Parsons spent the past four years recognized as a recruit destined for greatness. He flourished in that spotlight at Central Dauphin and Harrisburg high schools before enrolling early in Happy Valley. In contention to replace Cabinda at middle linebacker, Penn State’s latest No. 11 aims to match immense expectations early and often.
DT PJ Mustipher
Unlike Kuntz and Parsons, PJ Mustipher won’t join the roster until June. This 6-5, 290-pound defensive tackle is busy chasing after his second straight state wrestling championship at the McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Md.).
Mustipher is a penetrative interior force who possess the college-ready size and stamina to crack defensive line coach Sean Spencer’s rotation in the Nittany Lions trenches. One of three signees at the position this winter, Mustipher has the physical prowess that could put him on a fast track toward playing time.
Penn State also has a pair of rising redshirt freshmen at the position in Corey Bolds and Fred Hansard. Mustipher, a mature and motivated student-athlete, must maximize his first months on campus to seriously make strides toward inclusion as a defensive contributor.
His experience on the wrestling mat should have him ready to compete as a collegiate lineman.
“It’s just one on one. If you lose, it’s all on you. If you win, it’s all on you,” Mustipher told Land of 10 in August. “How much work you put in alone is going to translate to how well you do against an opponent. I think that’s the same focus on the football field, because you’ve got to whoop that offensive guard’s behind every play. You’ve got to make grown men do what they don’t want to do.”
This is probably my No. 1 pick to see the field as a freshman among 2018 Penn State signees. Justin Shorter, a 6-4, 220-pound playmaker, is considered the nation’s top-ranked high school receiver for good reason.
Polished route-running, toughness off the snap and innate anticipation in traffic combine to separate him from the pack of peers at his position. Shorter grew up in New Jersey following the recruitment and college career of fellow Garden State standout Juwan Johnson, and the two soon could share a huddle.
Penn State boasts an impressive stockpile of young talent at receiver, including three rising redshirt freshmen and two other blue-chip signees in the 2018 class, but Shorter is a special prospect. A grounded and humble athlete, he shouldn’t struggle with this upcoming transition as long as his health remains intact.
“Justin Shorter is as good a high school wide receiver that I’ve ever seen, on film and in person,” Franklin said.
Shorter should be in contention to become a primary target for Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley as the 2018 season progresses.
RB Ricky Slade
Plenty of offseason Penn State football discussions focus on what happens next in the offensive backfield. Saquon Barkley became a Nittany Lions legend during his three-year college career, overwhelming opponents as a rusher, receiver and special teams returner.
New Penn State running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider inherits an intriguing group, headlined by 5-star 2016 signee Miles Sanders. The Nittany Lions certainly won’t rush Slade onto the field, but might he prove too scintillating to leave on the sideline next season?
Considered the No. 1 all-purpose back prospect, he totaled 2,700 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2017, earning Virginia’s Gatorade Player of the Year honor. Slade said he anticipates opportunities to make an impact right away.
“Obviously, I want to come in and make an impact and try to play early,” he told Land of 10 in January. “I think I’ll be on special teams. I’ll definitely be in a receiver role, out there in the slot. They’re going to try to get me the ball in a lot of different ways in the open field.”