Penn State's Freshmen Have Been The Key To Success

By Matthew Filipovits on October 8, 2018 at 9:00 am
Apr 21, 2018; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KJ Hamler (1) during the second quarter of the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. The Blue team defeated the White team 21-10. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

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Going into this season, it was known that Penn State would need to rely heavily on young players. As we approach the halfway point of the season, the freshman class has taken advantage of the opportunities laid out for them. 

For this piece,  (*) will denote a redshirt freshman and (**) will denote a true freshman who has appeared, but is likely to maintain his redshirt under the new rule.

Offense

Despite all the new faces, Penn State's offense really hasn't missed a beat. After years of the offensive line having to rely on young players for production, it's been the skill positions that have seen a youth movement. Let's take a look at the breakdown of production from the Nittany Lion's rookies.

Freshman Receiving Stats
Player Catches % of team catches Receiving yards % of team Receiving yards Receiving touchdowns % of team receiving touchdowns
KJ Hamler* 13 17% 308 25% 4 33%
Pat Freiermuth 7 9% 89 7% 2 17%
Mac Hippenhammer 3 4% 76 6% 1 1%
Daniel George** 1 1% 95 8% 1 8%
zack kuntz** 1 1% 8 1% 0 0
Freshmen Total 25 32% 576 47% 8 66%

Right off the bat, it's clear that KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth have become two of the most important pieces of the offense. Hamler may not yet be Trace McSorley's go-to target, but has been the most dangerous with the ball in his hands. Hamler's has over 100 more total receiving yards than Juwan Johnson on four fewer receptions. Once Johnson gets his footing back underneath him, he and Hamler could provide one of the most dangerous receiver duos in the conference. 

Pat Freiermuth is a star in the making. The Massachusetts native seems destined for a freshman all-conference nod and is making the departure of Mike Gesicki seem much more manageable. 

While George and Kuntz are headed for redshirts, Hippenhammer has taken advantage of his snaps in mop duty. He's shown fantastic athleticism and will see a large increase in snaps this week if KJ Hamler is unable to go. 

Let's take a look at the rushing numbers. 

Freshmen Rushing Stats
Player carries % of team carries rushing yards % of team rushing yards Rushing touchdowns % of team rushing touchdowns
Ricky Slade 25 12% 147 11% 4 19%
Journey Brown* 2 1% 10 1% 1 5%
KJ Hamler* 2 1% 32 2% 1 5%
Sean Clifford* 4 2% 1 ~0% 0 0%
Freshmen Total 33 16% 190 13% 6 29%

Naturally, the rushing numbers aren't going to be nearly as impressive as the receiving stats. The ball gets to a lot more players through the air and Miles Sanders is the clear-cut best option on the ground. With that being said, Ricky Slade has been absolutely fantastic. He seems to make a big play on just about every series he's in on, averaging a touchdown every 6.25 plays. No other freshman has really had opportunities, outside of some jet sweeps for Hamler and some mop-up duty for Brown and Clifford.

Defense

While we knew the offense was going to have some young players help out, it was the defense where we expected a major youth movement. Let's take a look at how that's shaken out so far.

Freshmen Defensive Stats
Player Total tackles % of team total tackles TFLS % of team tfls Sacks % Of team sacks
Micah Parsons 23 6% 1 2% 0.5 3%
Jesse Luketa 4 1% 0 0% 0 0
Jonathan Sutherland* 15 4% 2 5% 0 0
ellis Brooks* 11 3% 0.5 1% 0.5 3%
PJ Mustipher 6 2% 0 0% 0 0
Donovan Johnson* 5 1% 0 0% 0 0
Jayson oweh** 3 1% 2 5% 2 13%
Fred Hansard* 2 1% 0.5 1% 0 0
CJ Thorpe* 1 ~0.5% 0 0% 0 0
Trent gordon** 1 ~0.5% 0 0% 0 0
Freshmen Total 71 20% 6 14% 3 19%

Having a fifth of your production come from first-year players is a good sign for the future. Although the youth has shown at times, this group could turn into something special. 

Micah Parsons has been very good for the most part, but at times still looks like a freshman still learning a new position. Although he isn't starting, the former five-star prospect is fifth on the team in tackles and tied for first among linebackers with two quarterback hurries.

Fellow linebackers Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa have worked their way into the rotation at middle linebacker. While we expected to Luketa to work in and gain experience, its Brooks who has impressed in his rookie season. He's twice been named to PFF's All-Conference Team of the Week, even being the Big Ten's highest-rated defensive player back in week two. 

In the secondary, Jonathan Sutherland has been a very pleasant surprise. It looked like he was set as the third safety in the rotation, but Lamont Wade got snaps over him against Ohio State. Donovan Johnson has been solid as John Reid figures some things out. 

WHat it all means

Penn State's youth movement has been one of the most fun things about the team. While we expected the defense to have the most production from young players, it's been the receiving game that has benefited the most from the newest Nittany Lions. The early blowouts allowed a lot of these guys to get the experience they needed and should provide the James Franklin and Co. with enough depth for the team to survive the rest of the Big Ten season. 

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