Penn State Redshirt Watch: Expect Plenty of True Freshmen to Play Against Rutgers

By Dan Smith on November 27, 2019 at 8:00 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

Penn State should destroy the feckless Rutgers Scarlet Knights this coming Saturday, whether starting quarterback Sean Clifford is able to go or not. Even factoring in the injury to the redshirt sophomore, the line for the game opened at 41 points for the home team. It would be surprising if this was still a game at halftime.

That means it is a golden opportunity for Penn State to take advantage of the redshirt rules that started in 2018. The Nittany Lions have 21 scholarship true freshman, and have decided to burn six of their redshirts this season. Of the other 15, only three can even mathematically still burn theirs.

There is precedent for this already, even just two years into the era of this rule. Penn State finished its 2018 regular season at home against Maryland, winning that game 38-3. In that game, Penn State played 12 true freshmen. They included players who are redshirt freshmen this season, including left tackle Rasheed Walker, defensive end Jayson Oweh, and cornerback Trent Gordon.

Saturday's home finale is the ideal scenario to get these youngsters some live game action. For three of them, it will be the first time they set foot on the field. So, who can we expect to see?

Green (Redshirt Burned)

Pos. Freshman Games Played Games Remaining
RB Noah Cain 9 (burned)
RB Devyn Ford 10 (burned)
DE Adisa Isaac 9 (burned)
LB Brandon Smith 11 (burned)
CB Keaton Ellis 11 (burned)
CB Marquis Wilson 8 (burned)

You are likely familiar with most of these players by now. Cain and Ford are the second and third running backs on the depth chart behind Journey Brown, with Cain only being limited recently by the injury he suffered in the Michigan State game. Isaac is the fifth defensive end, and the team giving him extended run is good considering the chances that both starting defensive ends could head for the professional ranks.

Smith is seeing limited but important snaps on defense, and playing on several special teams units; he's likely going to be a factor next season with a good chance to start at middle or outside linebacker. Ellis has been in the mix at corner from day one, while Wilson has emerged recently as what may already be the team's third cornerback, based on his playing time against Ohio State.

Yellow (Redshirt Maintained But Can Still Be Burned)

Pos. Freshman Games Played Games Remaining
OL Caedan Wallace 3 1
LB Lance Dixon 3 1
CB Joey Porter Jr. 3 1

These three players received trial runs early in the season, with Porter in particular being used to help the Nittany Lions through some injury troubles. The staff decided to keep the three off of special teams units after they got to three games, allowing them to maintain their redshirts for 2020. Theoretically, they can each play one more game, and it has to either be the Rutgers game or the bowl game. Expect the final appearance to be in this Rutgers game, as they should have a tough opponent come bowl season.

Red (Redshirt Secured, Freshman in 2020)

Pos. Freshman Games Played Games Remaining
QB Michael Johnson Jr. 0 4
QB Taquan Roberson 0 4
WR John Dunmore 1 3
WR T.J. Jones 1 3
TE Brenton Strange 2 2
OL Sal Wormley 1 3
DE Smith Vilbert 1 3
DT Hakeem Beamon 2 2
DT D'von Ellies 1 3
DT Joseph Appiah Darkwa 0 4
CB Daequan Hardy 1 3
S Tyler Rudolph 2 2

Here is where Saturday's game will be the most fun. Plenty of potential contributors to next year's team have seen very little of the field up to this point. Strange, Beamon, and Vilbert in particular are players to watch.

Three players have not seen any game action at all. The two quarterbacks' chances are likely elevated by the injury to Sean Clifford and the potential for Will Levis to start this game. That said, it may be contingent upon Levis getting the game in hand early enough that Penn State can ensure both quarterbacks see the field.

The other is German defensive tackle Darkwa, who is a mammoth young man the program hopes to turn into a future star. He is very inexperienced and likely more than one season away from making a potential impact, but the sheer uniqueness of his situation is always intriguing.