Penn State signed a third consecutive top-20 recruiting class in 2017, and four of those players are already on campus.
By enrolling early, they were able to participate in spring practices and meetings. That could be a big advantage in the fall, when the other true freshmen are trying to get settled and learn what it takes to compete at this level.
Only two of Penn State’s four early enrollees played Saturday in the Blue-White game at Beaver Stadium. Both were among the most talked-about players this spring by coaches and teammates. They may have positioned themselves to see early playing time in September.
Here’s how Penn State’s early enrollees performed in the spring game:
Lamont Wade, CB
National ranking: No. 46
State ranking: No. 2 in Pennsylvania
Position ranking: No. 5 cornerback
Wade is the most decorated player in the 2017 recruiting class, and his work this spring did not disappoint. He consistently earned praise from teammates and coaches as one of the standouts during practices.
An electric athlete with a college-ready body, Wade eventually could help Penn State on both sides of the ball. This spring, he focused on learning the defense and fitting in at cornerback.
Penn State already was deep at the position, so any contributions from Wade were going to be a luxury. Were is the key word there. That has changed. John Reid’s reportedly serious left knee injury could leave the Nittany Lions without their top cornerback.
Grant Haley, Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye rounded out the top four corners on the team last season, and all are back. But not having Reid available would leave an obvious opening for playing time.
Haley did not play in the Blue-White game. Campbell and Oruwariye started for the Blue, but Wade joined them on the third play as the nickel corner.
Wade spent the first half in that role, then manned one of the two outside corner spots during the second half. He was credited with 1 pass breakup.
There weren’t many tackles to be had for the Blue team. The White team completed 4 of 12 passes and ran the ball 11 times. The Blue team had the ball most of the scrimmage.
If Wade enters fall camp at No. 4 on the depth chart, he’ll almost certainly play in the opener against Akron. Given how well Wade performed in the spring, it’s not out of the question that he will be higher than fourth when the Nittany Lions play the Zips on Sept. 2.
Michael Miranda, OL
National ranking: No. 484
State ranking: No. 22 in Ohio
Position ranking: No. 4 center
Miranda did not take long to make an impact. He was earning first-team reps with the offensive line by the second week. Miranda consistently earned positive reviews from older members of the line and from coach James Franklin.
“I can relate to that because last year I came in early, so I know all the struggles he’s going through,” sophomore center Connor McGovern said after the game Saturday. “It was very impressive to see what he’s going through and how well he stepped up.”
Penn State has a lot of options for the two tackle spots, but not as many in the middle. That could change in the fall, depending on where seniors Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon end up once they return from undisclosed injuries.
McGovern established himself as the favorite to start at center. The competition for the guard spots might continue into the offseason and fall camp.
Redshirt freshman Michal Menet didn’t play in the spring game, so Miranda and redshirt sophomore Zach Simpson started at guard for the Blue team. Steven Gonzalez, who started three games at right guard at the end of last season, began the game with the White team before seeing action with the Blue.
Two of those four seem likely to start against Akron, unless one or both of the seniors move to guard, or 4-star freshman C.J. Thorpe has a huge fall camp after he arrives.
KJ Hamler, WR
National ranking: No. 322
State ranking: No. 43 in Florida
Position ranking: No. 46 wide receiver
Hamler missed most of his senior season at IMG Academy because of a torn ACL. He participated in spring practices, to some degree. Running backs and special teams coach Charles Huff said after the Blue-White game that Hamler (and Wade) were among the players who worked as punt returners during the spring.
“They weren’t able to get in any live work because we were trying to protect those guys, but what we were able to see after reps and charting every catch was who was able to make decisions,” Huff said. “Obviously, catching the ball is difficult, but these guys do a decent job of catching the ball. The issue is the decision-making. When do I sprint? When to be a little more aggressive? When to make a guy miss or fair catch the ball?”
Penn State is not short on bodies at wide receiver, particularly at the two outside spots. DaeSean Hamilton is entrenched as the slot receiver, with Brandon Polk behind him. If Hamler is cleared to participate fully in the fall, he could push Polk for that spot and become a candidate to skip the redshirt year. The Nittany Lions also may want to play it safe with him coming off a major knee injury.
Brelin Faison-Walden, LB
National ranking: No. 460
State ranking: No. 14 in North Carolina
Position ranking: No. 26 outside linebacker
Faison-Walden did not participate in the Blue-White game. It’s going to be tough for him to avoid redshirting, even with the extra experience from enrolling early.
Penn State has improved its depth at linebacker by moving Koa Farmer and Jarvis Miller from safety since the start of the 2016 season. Add them to Jason Cabinda, Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper, Brandon Smith and Cam Brown, and cracking the two-deep at linebacker is going to be tough for any of the freshmen.