STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State is now through six days of preseason training camp, providing a small sample size of freshmen on the field. The Nittany Lions welcomed four newcomers to campus via early enrollment in January, while 16 more members of the 2017 recruiting class arrived this summer.
The transition from high school to Power 5 football is challenging, regardless of how lauded a player may have been during their prep career. The pace — on the field, in the film room and in the classroom — accelerates drastically and can create confusion.
“It’s only been one week and some of these guys’ heads are spinning a little bit,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Saturday.
Despite this expected acclimation period, a few freshmen have managed to make an immediate impression on the Nittany Lions staff and their teammates.
Among that group, Franklin specifically cited cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos as newcomers who “jump out right away.”.
Redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson, a breakout star of 2017 spring camp, also pointed to Castro-Fields as an intriguing talent.
“He’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Johnson said. “Tariq is fast but he’s also very patient. He’s not one of those antsy young guys who is just biting on anything. He’s versatile and he’s going to be good for this team.”
Castro-Fields, a 6-foot, 185-pound Riverdale Baptist School (Upper Marlboro, Md.) product, may have initially spent time in the shadow of top-rated 2017 signee Lamont Wade as fans and analysts anticipated the arrival of this group.
Wade, a 5-9, 196-pound cornerback from Clairton (Pa.) High School, enrolled early and participated in the spring game.
“He’s put the hype to the side, has his head down and keeps working,” Johnson said.
Gross-Matos, referenced by both Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry on Saturday, already looks the part of a collegiate edge rusher. The Virginia native is 6-5 and 242, and appears primed to compete for reps at defensive end, which has been identified as an area where new contributors must step up this season in order to create a balanced attack.
Franklin also alluded to redshirt freshmen Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney as other players who will be counted on to assert themselves at defensive end. He also cast a glance across the trenches for another example of a freshman making waves early in camp.
Offensive lineman Mike Miranda, who comes to State College from Stow, Ohio, has given the Nittany Lions staff something to consider.
“Miranda is a guy who’s put the offense in a situation where we’re having some difficult discussions kind of like we did last year with (Connor) McGovern and (Michal) Menet,” Franklin said. “Do we play him this year? I think he’s shown that he belongs.”
McGovern started nine games in 2016 as a true freshman. Penn State applied redshirt status to Menet last season, so he enters the 2017 campaign equipped with four years of college eligibility.
Miranda, Gross-Matos and Castro-Fields were the specific newcomers named by Franklin, though he made it clear his evaluation of the 2017 freshman class remains in a fledgling stage.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of guys, but they’re the guys who I think we’re already saying are going to factor in,” Franklin said. “During the next week or two, there are going to be other guys. We have no problem playing true freshmen. We encourage it.”
A trio of offensive skill players also warrant attention: quarterback Sean Clifford, running back Journey Brown and receiver KJ Hamler.
Hamler, a 5-9, 170-pound speedster from the Detroit area, was mentioned as a candidate to return kickoffs and punts by special teams coordinator Charles Huff.
“He’s an electric player,” Huff said. “Obviously we’ve all seen that in his high school film, and he has the ability to change direction, speed and elusiveness. KJ has confidence and loves to play the game.”
Hamler was among the premier slot players in the 2017 recruiting cycle, and dominated throughout much of the high school camp circuit. He suffered a season-ending knee injury during the opening matchup of his senior campaign, but his recovery seems to be right on track.
Despite an impressive first week, the Nittany Lions staff is implementing a cautious strategy regarding his development.
“His ability to stay healthy and feel good is important,” Huff said. “We’re not going to put his health at risk. Also, it will come down to his ability to fill other roles on offense. Unless we feel like he’s going to change the game just as a punt returner, we want our guys to do multiple things. We’re still only five days in but he’s doing an unbelievable job.”
Hamler is also turning the heads of peers in his own positional group.
“KJ is a really fast and explosive guy, but the big thing is he’s always willing to learn,” Johnson said. “He’s always looking to get better and I’m excited to see how he develops. KJ has a lot of potential.”
A knee injury ended KJ Hamler's senior season early but he's looking like his electric self today.
WR also being considered as return man. pic.twitter.com/RV1e00zhjc
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) August 5, 2017
Brown, who possesses world-class quickness and claimed multiple Pennsylvania state track and field championships as a high school athlete, is following the lead of a running back group loaded with veterans. Saquon Barkley, widely viewed as college football’s premier rusher entering his junior campaign, explained how veterans like him are doing their part to help Brown.
“I think he’s handling things really well,” Barkley said. “He struggled a bit when he first got here, because of (weight) lifting. We’re probably one of the top lifting groups in the country. He still has some growing to do in that area but I made sure he knows everyone came in how he is, and he’s going to get there. He doesn’t need to worry about what he’s doing right now, but it’s about what he’s going to do at some point.”
Clifford, a 2016 Elite 11 finalist who led St. Xavier (Cincinnati) High to a state championship last season, is challenging for the No. 3 quarterback job. He’s locked in a battle with redshirt freshman Jake Zembiec, according to Franklin, for the right to back up incumbent starter Trace McSorley and 2017 spring game offensive MVP Tommy Stevens.
“That’s probably one of the more important things on my mind. Who’s the No. 3?” Franklin explained. “Say your No. 3 ends up being Jake. OK, fine, then you’re in a situation where you can redshirt Clifford. That’s wonderful. Well, what if Clifford ends up being No. 3? If you get in a situation where you get an opportunity to get your No. 3 in the game, we may do what we did with Trace, where we actually put the No. 4 guy in the game to maybe be able to redshirt the other guy.”
Linebacker Ellis Brooks and defensive tackles Corey Bolds and Fred Hansard are other freshmen whose names came up in a positive light during Saturday conversations.
A group of players who dominated the turf in their hometown during high school now faces a new task, and the next few weeks will help determine whether they’re prepared to play a role for the defending Big Ten champions this fall.
Perhaps senior linebacker Jason Cabinda put it best.
“You’ve got a lot of kids coming up with all the hype, and the 4-stars and the 5-stars,” he said. “They’ve got to realize none of that stuff matters once you get here. Once you get here, everyone is a zero-star and you’ve got to work your way back up.”