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Penn State Football: For Openers, a Record Lion’s Share of Youth

by on September 03, 2018 7:30 PM

For openers, the Penn State players who saw action vs. App State were James Franklin’s youngest group since he arrived in Happy Valley in 2014.

Ten Nittany Lions made their first start in Beaver Stadium on Saturday.

That’s a record for Franklin’s five-year tenure — and a far cry from 2017, when defensive end Shareef Miller was the sole Nittany Lion who made his first start in the opener against Akron, Akron, Akron.

(Saturday’s mostly untested ten: TE Jonathan Holland, C Michael Menet, WR KJ Hamler, DT Fred Hansard, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, MLB Jan Johnson, CB Amani Oruwariye, S Garrett Taylor, PK Jake Pinegar and KO Rafael Checa.)

Eight true Penn State freshmen saw the field against App State on Saturday — again, the highest number over the past five seasons. It's important to note, though, that this is the first year for a new rule that allows freshmen to play up to four games and maintain their four full years of eligibility.

(The elite eight: Checa, Pinegar, TE Pat Freiermuth, LB Jesse Luketa, DT PJ Mustipher, LB Micah Parsons, RB Ricky Slade and Nick Tarburton.)

Overall against App State, 17 Nittany Lions made their first appearance in a Penn State game. Under Franklin, that’s a number surpassed only by the 2016 squad, which saw 19 players appear in their first game against Kent State in the season opener.

(2018 first-timers not already mentioned above include: LB Ellis Brooks, TE Danny Dalton, WR’s Mac Hippenhammer and Cam Sullivan-Brown, CB Donovan Johnson, and OL Mike Miranda and C.J. Thorpe.)

Despite the youth, the Nittany Lions did not turn the ball over and had just two penalties for 10 yards. Conversely, they yielded a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD, lost an onside kick (and gained one as well, thanks to Parsons), surrendered 451 yards of total offense and gave up 28 points in a span of 712 seconds (of playing time) in the final quarter.


“I thought overall our offense looked really good at some times,” Franklin said after the game, “and other times we just looked like a young team with inexperienced players making mistakes. There was one player each drive or each play that didn’t do what we needed to do consistently, and I think the same thing on defense. 

He later added: “I think our inexperience showed up a few times and we didn’t play the way we are capable of playing.”

The Nittany Lions’ 45-38 victory in overtime boosted Franklin’s head coaching record for season-openers at Penn State to 4-1. (He was 1-2 in season-openers as a head coach at Vanderbilt in 2011-13 and 2-0 as a starting quarterback for East Stroudsburg in 1993-94.)

A number of freshmen and first-timers shined for the Nittany Lions, led by Hamler, who had four receptions for 68 yards, including a 15-yard TD catch to tie the game with 57 seconds left in regulation, set up by his 52-yard kickoff return. Pinegar made a 32-yard field goal in his one attempt — and was perfect on all six PAT attempts; Slade scored on a 26-yard run and finished with 39 yards on six carries; Johnson led the Nittany Lions in tackles, with 11 (four them unassisted); and Parsons added four tackles.


Not all the Nittany Lions were inexperienced. The Penn State starting O-line group was a very veteran bunch. Menet, who made his first start — at center — is in his third season at PSU. On Saturday, Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern both started their 23rd game, while Steven Gonzalez (17th start) and Chasz Wright (15th) brought great experience to the PSU offense. The top OL reserve on Saturday was Will Fries, who has 14 starts. No surprise that QB Trace McSorley was sacked only once by App State.

That game experience is a far cry from the Nittany Lions’ 2014 season-opener against UCF in Dublin. In that 26-24 victory, which was Franklin’s debut as PSU head coach, four offensive linemen made their first career start at Penn State — Brian Gaia, Brendan Mahon, Angelo Mangiro and Andrew Nelson.

In that 2014 season-opener (in which Christian Hackenberg threw for 454 yards and a TD), the five true freshmen who saw action comprised a talent-laden quintet: Marcus Allen, Saaed Blacknall, Mike Gesicki, Chris Godwin and Grant Haley.

Other true freshmen who played in their first-year season openers under Franklin were: 2015 — Saquon Barkley, Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper, Brandon Polk and John Reid; 2016 — Connor McGovern, Blake Gillikin and Miles Sanders; and 2017 — Gross-Matos, Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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