Penn State’s True Freshmen Perform Well In Week One

James Franklin said last Tuesday he expected seven scholarship true freshmen to see the field against Appalachian State, and indeed all seven made their Penn State debuts in a 45-38 overtime win.

“We just wanted to make sure that we got those guys in the game,” Franklin said, “and as those guys gain more confidence and gain experience, it’s going to help our team. I don’t think there is any question.”

Walk-on kickoff specialist Rafael Checa also saw game action in his first collegiate contest. His line drive of a squib kick turned into a turnover for the Nittany Lions, as linebacker Micah Parsons recovered the ball in stride just before the half.

Parsons, Ricky Slade, and Jake Pinegar were the headliners of the early freshman contributors Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Parsons finished with four tackles in the victory, while Pinegar hit a 32-yard field goal and all six of his extra points.

Parsons (11) mainly played defensive end and running back for Harrisburg High School.

“I thought Jake was calm, cool, and collected and did his job,” Franklin said. “I just [told Checa] that this is no different than Saint John’s [College] vs. DeMatha [Catholic], you have been doing this your whole career. Both of those guys ended up doing a really good job as true freshmen for us.”

Slade authored one of the main highlights of the evening when he burst through the middle of the line of scrimmage, kept his legs churning, and accelerated for a 27-yard touchdown toward the student section to give his team a 24-10 lead in the third quarter. The former five-star prospect from Woodbridge, VA, had six carries for 39 yards.

Slade was listed as the third-string running back behind Miles Sanders and Mark Allen on the team’s first depth chart. He could push Allen for the primary backup job in the coming weeks if he continues to make explosive plays like he did Saturday.

Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, tight end Pat Freiermuth, linebacker Jesse Luketa, and defensive end Nick Tarburton also solidified their “green light” status among Penn State’s vaunted 2018 recruiting class. Expect the group to continue rotating into the game with more frequency as the season goes along.

All eight of the true freshmen to make their debuts against the Mountaineers are unlikely to redshirt under the NCAA’s new four-game rule. Receivers Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter are good examples of players currently in the “yellow” category who have a chance to redshirt this season.

Franklin said Shorter was “dinged up” toward the end of training camp, but the former five-star prospect from Monmouth Junction, NJ, could prove too talented to keep off the field once he’s fully healthy in the coming weeks. Dotson was the talk of camp, with Franklin mentioning him on multiple occasions as a standout slot player.

Though they appeared on the first depth chart, cornerback Trent Gordon, center Juice Scruggs, receiver Daniel George, and defensive end Jayson Oweh will almost certainly redshirt due to solid depth at each of their respective positions.

A few could find their way onto the field in four games or less toward the end of the season if they continue to develop in practice, but the offensive linemen and quarterback Will Levis are unlikely to stray too far from the scout team their first year on campus.

Franklin stops to chat with Will Levis (17) during pregame warmups.

Freiermuth, who hails from Merrimac, MA, was on the field for Slade’s touchdown run in the third quarter after coming on in relief of Jonathan Holland and Danny Dalton. Freiermuth already looks the part of a college tight end, checking in at 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds on the latest roster update. He’ll turn 20 in October, while many of his classmates are still 18.

Freiermuth wasn’t the only prized tight end to sign with the Nittany Lions last December, as fellow four-star Zack Kuntz also faxed his letter of intent to the Lasch Building during the inaugural early signing period.

The Camp Hill, PA, native has plenty of room to fill out his 6-foot-7 frame and will likely do so behind the scenes this season. After basically playing wide receiver in high school, Kuntz has the luxury of waiting his turn — something Mike Gesicki didn’t have the option of doing as a true freshman when Penn State was razor thin at the position.

Kuntz committed to the Nittany Lions a week before they won the 2016 Big Ten championship.

Lamont Wade, Yetur Gross-Matos, and Tariq Castro-Fields were the only true freshmen to earn playing time for the Nittany Lions last season, but given the flexibility of the new redshirt rule, which also means teams can now travel 74 players to away games instead of 70, there’s a high possibility of seeing a dozen or more play this year.

Defensive tackle Judge Culpepper, the younger brother of Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper, who beat cancer earlier this summer, is another potential true freshman contributor to watch. Their father, Brad, played defensive tackle in the NFL for nine seasons, making stops in Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Chicago during his career.

Judge Culpepper could eventually join Taburton and Mustipher, who made a tackle Saturday against the Mountaineers, in Sean Spencer’s deep rotation if he continues to take strides in practice. The 6-foot-4 Culpepper played for H.B. Plant High School in Tampa and is already up to 280-plus pounds after only a few months on campus.

Isaiah Humphries, Rasheed Walker, Bryce Effner, Aeneas Hawkins, and Charlie Katshir are almost certainly in line to redshirt the traditional way barring unforeseen circumstances.

Nana Asiedu and Jordan Miner were both forced to medically retire due to heart conditions discovered this offseason, but each is still playing an integral role assisting the coaching staff and their teammates on the sidelines. They will remain on scholarship throughout their Penn State careers.

Parsons and Slade may be the ones generating the majority of the headlines thus far, but make no mistake — this 2018 recruiting class is going to be something special. If week one is any indication of the group’s potential, the next few games should be exciting.

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About the Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan’s a senior journalism major who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. When he’s not covering Penn State sports, you can usually find him golfing or teaching snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. Feel free to email him at [email protected].

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