Not that long ago, a true freshman faced long odds to get on the field for Penn State. Joe Paterno was often loathe to expose kids just a few months removed from high school – but that was a much easier position to take back then. Now, true freshmen play roles on high-profile teams across the country. Coaches recruit against coaches who don’t play freshmen. Also, NCAA sanctions have left Penn State with little depth – a far cry from Paterno’s gravy days when the Nittany Lions were loaded and players had to wait their turn.
Not James Franklin’s first class. It’s no secret that the vast majority will play this fall – and some in very significant roles. A variety of factors will play into how the staff initially utilizes each of Penn State’s 25 new players… and, of course, none has gone through so much as even a spring workout yet. So a lot can change between now and the Aug. 30 opener against UCF in Ireland.
But for now, a look at the chances each of PSU’s 25 scholarship true freshmen will have at playing – and playing important roles – in 2014. I’ll split it into two parts, offense and defense. First, the offense, in alphabetical order.
RB Mark Allen
One of three backs to join an already-crowded backfield, Allen will need to carve out a niche for himself to play significantly as a true freshman. He’s said to be a strong receiver out of the backfield. The Lions have plenty of options at running back, but specialization is key and a third-down role is possible because Allen could potentially fit immediately into it.
WR Troy Apke
Apke plays a position in which there assuredly will be some meaningful contributions from freshmen needed – but he also is part of what was a deep class of prospects at the position. I caution against reading too much into recruiting-service rankings – maybe I’m naïve, but I buy into Franklin’s philosophy that they all start over once on campus. That said, though, Apke has three incoming freshmen who were more highly-regarded at his position. It might be an uphill battle, but there’s a plum spot or two there for some of these guys to seize.
OL Noah Beh
Franklin called offensive tackle the team’s greatest need, so he and his staff brought in four of them. Donovan Smith (left) and redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson (right) are virtual locks to open the season atop the tackle depth chart, but they are the only scholarship non-freshmen at the position. That means one or two of the incoming guys will need to be ready. At only 260 pounds, though, Beh is the longest shot of the group to play immediately – although he is a very intriguing prospect down the road.
WR Saeed Blacknall
Penn State’s Class of 2014 has two players who were rated four stars by each of the four major recruiting services – both are wide receivers. Considering the glaring hole the departure of Allen Robinson bolting for the NFL leaves, it’s a good bet that at least one of those two – Blacknall and Chris Godwin – steps in this fall. Blacknall has the size (6-2, 210) and ability to draw comparisons to Robinson. He’ll be given a chance to show what he can do.
OL Brendan Brosnan
Brosnan has the length and quickness that Franklin likes out of his offensive linemen. He added considerable weight as he approached his senior year of high school. At least one of the freshmen will need to emerge as a reliable backup for Smith and Nelson at tackle. If Brosnan comes into camp in shape and bulked up, there’s a chance it’s him.
TE Mike Gesicki
Do a Google search of Mike Gesicki dunks. The kid is a pure athlete. And judging by his offers from Ivy League schools, he’s smart, too. At 6-5, 245, he’s got the frame to succeed. Barring something unforeseen, Penn State’s coaches will find a way to use Gesicki this upcoming season. The fact there’s three established quality tight ends will do little to change that. It might not come at the expense of Kyle Carter, Jesse James or Adam Breneman, but Gesicki will in all likelihood make an impact.
WR Chris Godwin
Godwin is of similar size (6-2, 205) and pedigree (each was deemed a four-star recruit by all four major services and had offers from at least 10 big-five conference schools) to Blacknall. The duo shares the designation of most-likely-to-replace the NFL-bound Robinson over the long term. It will be interesting to see who emerges more quickly and who has the higher ceiling – the answer to those two questions might not necessarily be the same. Each, in all likelihood, will be heard from, though.
QB Trace McSorley
One of two much-needed quarterbacks in this class, McSorley has zero chance (barring catastrophic injuries) of starting at the position this season. Christian Hackenberg has that locked down, of course. A former Vanderbilt recruit, McSorley is listed as an “athlete” by some recruiting services, so it’s possible the coaching staff could find creative ways to use him in various capacities out of various spots on the field.
QB Michael O’Connor
O’Connor is actually bigger (225 pounds) and taller (6-5) then the 6-4, 220-pound Hackenberg. He’s not a more highly-regarded recruit than Hackenberg was – but he’s close (four stars, No. 7 pocket passer by Rivals, for example). Conventional wisdom says O’Connor will redshirt behind Hackenberg this fall, learn the system and ease into the college game and eventually start, perhaps, as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. A lot can happen between now and then, though. A theory: McSorley or one of the three walk-on redshirt freshmen would relieve Hackenberg in so-called “mop-up duty” or of if it’s a shortterm injury, but if Hackenberg is out for the season, O’Connor would be a long-term fill-in. Bottom line: What we do know is that O’Connor won’t be taking meaningful snaps in 2014 as long as Hackenberg is upright.
RB Nick Scott
Scott might not work his way into the meaningful running backs rotation in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he perhaps won’t be on the field often. He played outside linebacker, free safety, quarterback, running back and wide receiver in high school, and that kind of versatility, athleticism and instincts can be utilized by a team which has had depth sapped by NCAA sanctions. There’s a good bet you hear Scott’s name called often this season – just not necessarily at the expense of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch.
OL Chance Sorrell
A good enough athlete he played tight end in high school and was previously recruited to play Division I basketball, Sorrell fits the Franklin mold of tall tackles who are good on their feet. But at 270 pounds currently, he needs to add mass. When the first depth charts come out, bet on Brosnan and Chasz Wright being ahead of Sorrell – even if Sorrell potentially has a very high ceiling over the long term.
RB Johnathan Thomas
At 220 pounds, Thomas is the biggest back on the roster not named Zwinak. Perhaps that makes him the most likely of the “Freshmen 3” at his position to be a featured back down the road. For 2014 – barring injury – Penn State appears set at running back. Thomas’ more physical approach potentially means big things are in store for 2015 and beyond.
WR De’Andre Thompkins
Thompkins is considered one of the nation’s top 40 wide receivers recruits; when he made his verbal commitment to Penn State this past April, he could have well felt he’d be the jewel of the position for Penn State’s Class of 2014. Since, Godwin and Blacknall committed, leaving Thompkins’ potential freshman role a bit murky. That said, Thompkins has the most established return skills – and not only is that an area in which true freshman have been known to contribute, it’s also a position of need for the Lions.
OL Chasz Wright
Confirmed by the Penn State media relations staff that he’ll officially be listed at 310 pounds, that would make Wright not only the heaviest incoming freshman – he’d instantly become the Lions’ second-biggest player on the team behind starting left tackle Smith. Combine that with the head start he has as an early enrollee and the extra experience of a season at prep school, and Wright has the inside track on the race for playing time among the freshmen tackles.