James Franklin picked out a small batch of true freshmen he thinks the coaching staff will have no choice but to play this fall based on pure talent alone.
“We have no problem playing true freshmen; we encourage it,” Franklin said Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
During preseason camp, Franklin likes to break down his incoming class into three groups: green, yellow, and red. Of course, green signifies a player is ready to contribute right away, while yellow is more of a toss-up.
First, Franklin mentioned blue-chip cornerback Lamont Wade, who arrived on campus in January after graduating early from Clairton High in Western Pennsylvania. “Obviously there was a lot of excitement about Wade this spring and he’s had a nice offseason continuing to grow.”
But he’s not the only freshman turning heads.
“Tariq Castro-Fields is probably a guy that there’s as much buzz about as any of the newcomers right now,” Franklin said. “I would say Yetur Gross-Matos is the other freshman that there’s excitement about and we’re saying, ‘You know, we’re gonna probably need to find a way for him to have a role for us this year.'”
Castro-Fields, a lengthy corner from Upper Marlboro, Md., has tested off the charts since getting to State College in late June. Wade and Castro-Fields will be asked to pick up some of the slack in the wake of John Reid’s likely season-ending knee injury. Gross-Matos, on the other hand, is a supremely athletic defensive end who already checks in at 6-foot-5, 242 pounds.
Pry on true freshmen Castro-Fields and Gross-Matos: "They may not be sure about everything, but they go hard as heck."
— Onward State (@OnwardState) August 5, 2017
On the offensive side of the ball, Stow, Ohio, guard Mike Miranda — another spring enrollee — has cracked the two-deep and is giving position coach Matt Limegrover plenty to think about moving forward.
“Miranda’s a guy that’s put the offense in a situation where we’re kinda having some difficult discussions like we did last year with [Connor] McGovern and [Michal] Menet,” Franklin said. “He’s shown that he belongs.”
When Franklin first got to Penn State, a large portion of his true and redshirt freshmen were asked to contribute immediately due to depth concerns. Now, he’s able to preach patience with their development. But there will always be first-year players too good to keep on the sidelines.
“Come Sunday, I want to update a depth chart that we can go over as a staff — offense, defense, and special teams,” Franklin said. “And I want that depth chart to reflect if we were playing a game on Saturday, ‘Who would be the guys that are getting reps? What’s the order of it?'”
In the past, Penn State organized practice by a complex assortment of jersey colors denoting starters, second team, and the scout squad. Instead, the coaching staff will be transparent this season by internally posting an updated depth chart each week.
“I think it’s gonna magnify the competition, I think it’s gonna give the players really good, honest feedback of where they’re at,” Franklin said.
Franklin had a conversation with director of performance enhancement Dwight Galt during practice earlier this week, eagerly pointing out under a cupped hand, “We look different.”
“You look at Corey Bolds, you look at Fred Hansard, you look at Yetur — none of those guys look like true freshmen,” Franklin said. “They are big, strong, physical, developed guys who can run.”
At the moment, Bolds and Hansard likely fall into the “yellow” category. Receivers Mac Hippenhammer and K.J. Hamler may be asked to help out in the return game.
We’ll see if they can join Wade, Miranda, Castro-Fields, and Gross-Matos in that top tier come Sept. 2 versus Akron.