Penn State vs Rutgers : Nov. 16–The second half of Saturday’s game between Penn State and Rutgers might be more interesting than the first. No, the Nittany Lions aren’t going to be locked in a close affair with the Scarlet Knights; James Franklin’s squad is a 28-point favorite for a reason.
But in the third and fourth quarters of an expected blowout, we ought to get an extended look at Penn State’s future. Fifteen true freshmen have played for the Nittany Lions this season, 12 more than 2017. A few have become full-time starters; others are working their way into the Nittany Lions’ garbage time rotation. Of course, the new redshirt rule has a lot to do with that. In the offseason, the Division I council approved a proposal that would allow players to participate in up to four games without burning their redshirt for the season.
So how will that come into play on Saturday? And which freshmen should Penn State fans expect to see against Rutgers? Here’s a breakdown.
Five Nittany Lions have established themselves as first-teamers: tight end Pat Freiermuth, wide receiver Jahan Dotson, field goal kicker Jake Pinegar, kickoff specialist Rafael Checa and linebacker Micah Parsons.
Freiermuth (four touchdowns), Pinegar (8 of 10 on FG attempts since Oct. 20) and Checa have been involved since Day 1. Dotson — who could still technically redshirt but won’t — logged his first career start last week and has seven catches for 99 yards in four games. And Parsons, while he’s never started, is logging enough snaps to be considered in this category. The former five-star prospect out-snapped veteran Koa Farmer significantly against Wisconsin and leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 58.
Just as they have throughout Big Ten play to this point, expect all five to play a major role in Piscataway.
Four freshmen have seen enough of the field already — or will in the near future — to garner the distinction of a contributor: running back Ricky Slade, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, linebacker Jesse Luketa and wide receiver Justin Shorter.
* Slade — the No. 1 running back in the 2018 recruiting class — is Miles Sanders’ primary backup. Even though he missed three consecutive games, ceding limited carries to Journey Brown, Slade has already burned his redshirt. The Virginia native has played in six games, putting together a career performance against Illinois (10 carries, 94 yards, two TDs) in September. He could do the same in garbage time against Rutgers.
* Like Slade, Mustipher’s redshirt has been long burned. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound run-stuffer has appeared in eight games, tallying 12 tackles and a forced fumble. Mustipher, who’s listed as Kevin Givens’ backup, was on the field for Wisconsin’s second-to-last series and recorded a hurry and a third-down tackle with the Badgers down 12. “You never really expect to play an O-lineman or a D-lineman as a freshman,” Franklin said Wednesday. “So PJ Mustipher playing as a true freshman at defensive tackle where, that’s a grown man’s game in there, he’s been able to be pretty good. He’s coming into his own. Last week was his best game by far.”
* Luketa hasn’t necessarily stood out like Slade and Mustipher, but the Canadian is playing quite a bit. Luketa has appeared in nine games, primarily serving on special teams. The third-string middle linebacker saw time on defense against Pitt, Kent State, Illinois and Michigan. Expect him and redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks to get a healthy amount of work at the MIKE on Saturday.
* Shorter has played in just two games, but he will see time at Rutgers, giving him one more game (Maryland or the bowl) without burning that redshirt. The five-star receiver — Penn State’s highest-ranked offensive recruit since Derrick Williams in 2005 — caught his first pass last week against the Badgers. He’ll likely get career catch No. 2 at HighPoint.com Stadium, 15 miles from his hometown of Monmouth Junction, N.J. “Shorter has shown some real flashes,” Franklin said Tuesday. “He gained a little bit of time last week and did some good things. So we’d like to build on that this week.”
Six true freshmen — quarterback Will Levis, linebacker Charlie Katshir, safety Isaiah Humphries, offensive lineman Juice Scruggs and defensive linemen Aeneas Hawkins and Judge Culpepper — have not played this year and likely won’t. From signal-caller (Tommy Stevens, Sean Clifford) to safety (Jonathan Sutherland, Lamont Wade), there are enough young, ready backups to fill in if need be.
But there are a handful of sparingly-played rookies who might get a shot at Rutgers.
Defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Nick Tarburton, cornerback Trent Gordon, offensive lineman Rasheed Walker, tight end Zack Kuntz and Daniel George have all appeared in a game or two, but plan on redshirting. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to play, say, Oweh against Rutgers, Maryland and a bowl opponent and lose a year of eligibility.
But Franklin likes what he’s seen from the raw, 6-foot-6 edge rusher. Oweh — who started playing football as a junior — “was behind in the developmental process” in high school. But the coach said at this point in the year, “Oweh’s a guy who’s probably further ahead than what we thought.” Don’t be surprised to see him on the field in his home state.
Franklin also promised that Gordon will play against the Scarlet Knights. “Now how much does he play?” Franklin said of the corner. “I’m not sure. But I’d make the argument that even if he plays six plays in the game, that’s gonna be valuable for him moving forward.”
When asked if any other fringe freshmen could see the field, the coach said Walker might get some run. The No. 65 prospect in college football last year, Walker is not listed on Penn State’s depth chart, but played at tackle against Kent State.
Whoever gets in Saturday — whether it’s Shorter catching five balls or Oweh tallying a fourth-quarter sack — there’s an obvious benefit for the freshman’s development. And winning out with a possible New Year’s Six appearance wouldn’t hurt, either.
“If the cards play right, we can go to a big bowl game, like we have the past couple of years. That’s what we keep trying to emphasize to the younger guys,” fifth-year senior Amani Oruwariye said. “Just keep working and focus, and we’re going to like where we’re at. And that’ll lead into next year, all the great stuff they’re going to do.”
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