Will Fries’ Redshirt Situation Has James Franklin In A Bind
The Nittany Lions have reached an interesting point in their season. As one of the youngest teams in college football, they’ve far exceeded preseason expectations to reach No. 10 in the College Football Playoff Poll. With games against Rutgers and Michigan State standing between them and a potential Big Ten title shot, the unthinkable has slowly become reality.
But Penn State has an offensive line problem — and no, it’s quite different than the issue that’s plagued the program over the last few years. The issue is depth, and the cause is the injury bug. The Lions have lost starters Andrew Nelson for the year and Brendan Mahon in the last month, but saw freshman Connor McGovern go down along with senior starter Paris Palmer for an undisclosed amount of time. Against Indiana, redshirt freshman guard Ryan Bates slid to left tackle while Chasz Wright manned the opposite side. Fellow redshirt freshman guard Steven Gonzalez took over at Bates’ vacant position and held his own. That leaves true freshman Will Fries as the team’s best reserve tackle, but the matter becomes further complicated. James Franklin has raved about Fries in recent weeks, but stands firm in his decision to keep his redshirt untouched. This choice has presented quite the dilemma for the Lions.
Against Indiana, current starter Chasz Wright showed some promise, but struggled mightily against blitzes from the edge. Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen effectively disguised blitzes and did whatever else he needed to do to keep Trace McSorley’s pocket pressured and tight. Expect Rutgers and Michigan State to do much of the same, which is why it’s time to give the freshman a shot.
As a recruit, the four-star Fries fielded offers from just about every major program in the country. He sent the likes of Michigan, Clemson, and Wisconsin all packing to sign on with the Nittany Lions as one of the 2016 class’ most coveted offensive line prospects. But, if he’s going to potentially have an impact in a major game like the Big Ten Championship — and possibly beyond — he’s going to need in-game experience, which leaves Franklin with a difficult decision. Does he keep Fries sidelined to preserve an extra year of eligibility? Or does he play him now to put his team in the best spot to win, like Ole Miss did with its young quarterback Shea Patterson last week?
Time is running out for Franklin to make his choice. If he’s going to commit, allowing Fries to get snaps under his belt against Rutgers — a team the Lions should handle with ease — would be the best way to start. He’ll face much tougher competition in Michigan State in the regular season finale if he were to compete, meaning he’d have two games of action if all falls into place and the Lions are sent to Indianapolis to face likely Big Ten West champion Wisconsin.
Franklin’s remained adamant that he won’t be pulling Fries’ redshirt over the past few weeks, but circumstance may force his hand. The freshman might wind up being forced into action if Penn State’s linemen continue to fall at such a staggering rate. My money is on Fries making an appearance sooner rather than later.