Predicting Which Penn State Freshmen Will Play Right Away and Which Will Redshirt

By Matthew Filipovits on July 8, 2019 at 8:30 am
Apr 13, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Keaton Ellis (2) during the first quarter of the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With summer classes now entering their second week, Penn State's entire 2019 recruiting class is beginning to settle in on campus. With the gang all here, the staff can now begin to get an idea of who is ready to play right away, and who could use some more time to hone their craft. Let's take a look at who could be factoring right away and who is heading for a redshirt.

We're only going to talk about the freshmen in this post, so JUCO transfers Jaquan Brisker and Anthony Whigan will not be mentioned, although both have redshirt years available.

With that out of the way, let's jump right in. 

Definitely Not Redshirting

Brandon Smith, LB

The nation's highest rated inside linebacker, Smith was always going to play whether he enrolled early or not. Thankfully, he did arrive on campus back in January, giving him more time to prepare for his debut collegiate season. 

He's bound to a play a big role on special teams, and after spending time this spring at outside linebacker, will look to get time at all three positions. Pry loves his linebackers to be flexible, so being able to throw Smith out there and give any of his other backers a break is going to make life easier. 

Noah Cain, RB

Cain came on very strong after a fantastic spring, capped off with a two-touchdown performance in the Blue-White Game. Despite all the depth the Nittany Lions currently have at running back, there's not all that much experience. This should allow Cain to work his way up the depth chart and force his way into the running back rotation.

Another aspect of Cain's game that helps his cause to be given the "green light" is that he was a very different style of running than other back on the roster. Ricky Slade, Journey Brown, and fellow signee Devyn Ford are all very fast, shifty backs who will try to beat you with their speed. Cain is much more of a downhill style runner, more likely to try to run through you than around you. This could lead to him being the top option in short yardage situations or when the offense is trying to punch it in on the goal line.

Probably Won't Redshirt

Keaton Ellis, CB

If anybody had a better spring than Noah Cain, it was Keaton Ellis. A State College native, Ellis received praise from coaches and players alike for his play, with the staff continually mentioning his above-average instincts. He seemed to always be around the ball and really held his own practicing against one of the conference's most exciting receiving corps. 

Franklin himself said that the further away you play from the line of scrimmage, the more likely you are to play early. With John Reid's impending graduation and Tariq Castro-Fields potentially off to the NFL after the season, Ellis could benefit in the long run from playing a lot of snaps early in his career. The only thing holding Ellis back would be the emergence of also-exciting youngsters Donovan Johnson and Trent Gordon.

Lance Dixon, LB

Dixon is in a bit of weird situation. He could either be heading for a Jesse Luketa situation: forcing his way onto the field and making an impact on special teams and in the linebacker rotation. Or the Rasheed Walker situation: the staff knowing he's good enough to play but the new redshirt rule allowing them to play him when they need him and ultimately maintain a year of eligibility. If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on the former.

Even though the Nittany Lions are very deep at linebacker, Cam Brown will be gone after next season. Dixon can gain a lot of experience and make a big impact on special teams while working into the linebacker rotation as the staff sees fit. In short, he's likely way too talented to not see the field.

Play In Four Games, Then Decide

Devyn Ford, RB

Ford is yet another in a line of very exciting, speedy back to work their way to Happy Valley. Higher ranked than the aforementioned Noah Cain, Ford could prove too good keep off the field when he gets some run in his four games and adds some great depth if injuries mount up. Not enrolling early may have put him a bit behind, but he has the talent to make up some ground throughout camp and the early parts of the season.

Adisa Isaac, DE

It's rare for the Nittany Lions to not redshirt a defensive lineman, but Isaac could be an exception. While deep at the position, Sean Spencer loves to give a lot of guys reps, so Isaac could help keep Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney, and Shane Simmons fresh. With YGM almost certainly leaving after this season, Isaac could benefit greatly from extended game reps en route to becoming a key contributor in 2020 and beyond.

John Dunmore, WR

For all the talent the wide receiving corp has, there's not a lot of experience. John Dunmore could quickly work his way into the two-deep, especially if injuries start to pile up. Regardless, he's going to make an impact when he does see the field. It's just a matter of the staff thinks it's a big enough one to burn an entire season of eligibility.

Longshots to Not Redshirt, But It's Possible

Tyler Rudolph, S

An early enrollee, Rudolph adds some exciting depth at safety, but there's just a lot of guys expected to be ahead of him. Garrett Taylor, Lamont Wade, Jonathan Sutherland, and Jaquan Brisker will likely make up the two-deep, so the staff has no real reason to rush Rudolph onto the field.

D'von Ellies, DT

Even with Kevin Givens' unexpected departure to the NFL, the Nittany Lions' depth at defensive tackle is solid. If Fred Hansard  is 100% healthy, the Nittany Lions will have as many as seven defensive tackles who could see time. If injuries mount up like last year, there's no CJ Thorpe to save them, as he will have a big role on offense. That's where Ellis would come into play.

Going to Redshirt

Caedan Wallace, OG

Wallace's status has nothing to do with his talent at all. A top-100 prospect and the No. 3 guard in the nation, Wallace will redshirt simply because of the guys ahead of him. Steven Gonzalez, Mike Miranda, and CJ Thorpe will all get a ton of time at guard. That's three players for two spots, adding a fourth would simply be too many cooks in the kitchen.

Ta'Quon Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr, QB

Unless you're an unquestioned starter, true freshman quarterbacks rarely don't redshirt. Although thin at the position after the Stevens transfer, Sean Clifford and Will Levis should be enough to hold the position steady. If either of these guys plays enough to burn a redshirt, it's likely due to something going horribly awry with injuries.

Saleem Wormley, OL

The Nittany Lions rarely let offensive lineman loose as a true freshman. Although at 6'3/318, Wormley already looks the part, he will benefit from a year on the scout team and getting his body in the best possible shape for the rigors of a Big Ten season.

Joey Porter Jr, DB

Porter is a very talented football player and will one day make a big impact for the Nittany Lion defense. His true freshman season should be about finding exactly where that impact will be made. Recruited as a corner out of high school, Porter could be better suited to slide back and play safety or bulk up his 6'2 frame and play linebacker like his father. Once that gets figured out, he will need some time to learn the ins and outs of the position.

Marquis Wilson, CB

Wilson early enrolled but still needs to bulk up a bit. If Keaton Ellis plays, there's just too many guys ahead of him at the moment.

TJ Jones, WR

The receivers room is too crowded right now, especially with the addition of grad transfer Weston Carr. Jones can spend a season bulking up before trying to crack both the receiver and return man rotations in 2020.

Smith Vilbert, DE

Vilbert is still new to football, having focused on basketball for much of his life, and is a very raw athlete. It'll take some time before he's ready to go up against some of the best offensive linemen in the country.  

Brenton Strange, TE

Yet another early enrollee, Strange enters a tight end room with a fun blend of experience and young talent. Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers seem locked in as the top two options and Zack Kuntz will have a role in this offense somewhere. There just aren't enough reps to go around.

Joseph Darkwa, DT

Darkwa has a lot more to adjust to than your average college football player. Coming over from Germany, he will have to adjust to not only the culture but the level of talent he will be facing. Asking him to play is just too much.

Daequan Hardy, DB

Hardy needs to add weight, and I mean a lot of weight before he can see the field. Just 160, Hardy has to not only gain the weight but figure out to play at that weight before he should see the field.

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