Breaking Down Penn State’s True Freshman Contributors
James Franklin has had the luxury of bringing his true freshmen along largely behind the scenes in his second and third years with the program.
After playing 10 true freshmen in 2014, the Nittany Lions have had nine see the field from their next two classes combined. Through seven games, Penn State has seen four true freshmen crack the lineup — Miles Sanders, Blake Gillikin, Connor McGovern, and Cam Brown. Let’s break down their respective contributions, and ponder whether another one may be forced into action.
Miles Sanders | Pittsburgh, Pa. | Running back
Though the Steel City standout has only received seven touches behind Saquon Barkley, he’s turned those limited opportunities into 56 yards rushing (8.0 average). That’s counting his lone carry for -10 yards against the Buckeyes in which he simply tried to make something out of nothing. The former five-star Woodland Hills product has made his biggest impact on special teams, where he’s wrestled the starting kickoff returner spot from safety Nick Scott. Sanders has 15 returns under his belt for 323 yards with a long of 33.
Now that Sanders is getting accustomed to picking up complex pass blocking assignments, he should start to see the game slow down a bit as the season wears on. It’s a safe bet he’ll have the chance to rotate in more often in the coming weeks, starting with the Nittany Lions’ trip to Purdue this Saturday.
Blake Gillikin | Smyrna, Ga. | Punter
Simply put, Gillikin has been nothing short of fantastic for a Penn State punting unit that struggled mightily the past two seasons. He’s averaging 41.4 yards per punt (36 attempts), with a career long of 69 against Pitt, but the most impressive aspect of Gillikin’s game is getting the ball inside the 20. He’s pulled off the feat 14 times, while only surrendering four touchbacks.
After trotting out three times in the 38-14 win over Maryland, Gillikin was spelled by junior Daniel Pasquariello for the rest of the ballgame due to a nagging lower-body injury. He made his return against Ohio State and very well saved the game for the Nittany Lions midway through the third quarter. Penn State’s drive stalled at its own 30-yard line, and an untimely mistake saw the snap fly over Gillikin’s head and into the end zone. Rather than give up on the play, he outran wide receiver Terry McLaurin and fell on the ball for a safety to keep the Nittany Lions within two scores, 21-7.
Connor McGovern | Larksville, Pa. | Right guard
McGovern enrolled early last January and the chance to participate in spring ball proved huge in his development. Playing along the offensive line requires tremendous attention to technique and plenty of repetition. Having that extra practice time allowed McGovern to absorb a great deal more of Joe Moorhead and Matt Limegrover’s blocking schemes than if he had showed up in the summer with the rest of the freshmen.
After splitting time at right guard with Derek Dowrey throughout the first four games, McGovern earned his first start against Minnesota and hasn’t looked back. Offensive line is by far the hardest position to make an early impact, as Franklin has mentioned that he prefers to let his guys learn from the sidelines for at least two years before being thrown into the fire. McGovern is the first Penn State lineman since Stefan Wisniewski in 2007 to see the field as a true freshman. Wisniewski, a Philadelphia Eagle, is now in his sixth season in the NFL.
Cam Brown | Burtonsville, Md. | Linebacker
Brown made his debut on special teams against Temple and quickly showed the athleticism and fundamental tackling skills that made him such a sought-after prospect in high school. He was teammates with redshirt freshman tight end Jon Holland at The Bullis School. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Brown held offers from USC and Notre Dame, among many others, but saw the depth situation at Linebacker U and knew he could make a splash from day one.
Brown made his first career start on the road at Michigan and it was a dandy despite the 49-10 box score. He finished in second place on the Nittany Lion defense with 10 tackles, behind only senior safety Malik Golden (11), showing that the biggest stages don’t faze him. Brown further expanded on that notion against the Buckeyes. With Penn State down 21-14 early in the fourth quarter, Brown burst up the middle for an enormous punt block that led to a 34-yard Tyler Davis field goal. He’s currently 10th on the defense with 20 total tackles (one for loss).
Could Will Fries Still Be Called Upon?
Will Fries has been listed as the second-team left tackle behind senior Paris Palmer for the past two weeks following Andrew Nelson’s season-ending injury. Franklin noted before Ohio State that Chasz Wright would be the third option going forward. However, the 6-foot-7, 343-pound Wright didn’t play any snaps on offense behind Brendan Mahon on the right side as all five starters went the distance against the Buckeyes. Barring injury (knock on wood), Fries should be able to keep his redshirt intact.
Penn State’s 20th-ranked 2016 recruiting class still has plenty of talent waiting in the wings who will see the field starting next fall. Offensive guard Michal Menet and defensive end Shane Simmons highlight a strong group that has lots of potential.