What to Expect from the Penn State Freshman Class in 2020

By Nick Polak on September 21, 2020 at 8:00 am
True freshmen running backs Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee walk into Penn State practice.

With the Big Ten set to start its season up in October, it's time to start projecting what to expect from Penn State this fall. Due to the unique circumstances of the 2020 season, the NCAA has already declared that no player will lose a year of eligibility this season, regardless of whether or not they choose to compete (in order to not punish those who choose to opt-out due to safety concerns). A shockingly reasonable decision from the NCAA, to be sure, but one that also presents a very interesting scenario for the freshman class.

Typically, the current true freshmen would be afforded four games before burning their redshirts and shortening their eligibility clock. However, with the upcoming "free" season, so to speak, it's entirely possible that we see a lot more from the freshman class than we would have seen otherwise.

So which true freshmen might we get an extended look at this fall that we weren't expecting to previously?

Running Backs - Caziah Holmes & Keyvone Lee

Now, we were likely to see both of these guys under normal circumstances anyway, given how willing Penn State has been to give their young backs a chance to prove they deserve playing time. But with Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford as solidified as they can be in the first three spots on the depth chart, it's possible that only one of these two would have really gotten some run in normal times.

With no redshirt to worry about, however, Holmes should have little issue finding his way on the field as the fourth back in the normal rotation, not to mention time at returner. With the new rule, don't be surprised to see Lee get a good amount of work in games that get out of hand. His punishing style of running is perfect for eating clock.

Wide Receivers - KeAndre Lambert, Parker Washington, Jaden Dottin, Malick Meiga, Norval Black

Without redshirts to worry about, it would not at all be surprising to see all of Penn State's freshmen/first-year-JUCO wide receivers get a chance this fall. Aside from Jahan Dotson's starting spot, nothing is set among the receivers, meaning most guys in the unit will probably get a shot at some point. It would be very surprising to see all five of these guys play more than four games each, but if the receivers struggle in 2020 as they did in 2018 and 2019, nothing can be considered off the table.

Of this group, Lambert and Washington remain the two most likely to make major impacts.

Tight End - Theo Johnson

Where Johnson may have previously been given just a few snaps here and there as he learns the playbook and recovers from his shoulder injury, there may be more playing time in the cards now (provided he fully recovers in time). Pat Freiermuth's return means there will be fewer snaps up for grabs, but Johnson is a supreme talent. If he earns playing time in practice, you can bet we'll see him on the field.

Defensive Tackle - Cole Brevard

The 2020 class was light on highly-regarded defensive linemen (Brevard and Coziah Izzard were the only blue-chip defensive linemen in the class with Zuriah Fisher moving to linebacker). But Brevard certainly has an outside shot at finding his way onto the field. PJ Mustipher and Antonio Shelton are as locked in as starters as any position on the roster, and Judge Culpepper seems very set as a primary backup, but the depth chart behind them remains in flux.

Fred Hansard has shown some of his massive talents at times but has struggled with injuries. After him, the depth chart is full of redshirt and true freshmen. Hopes are high for Hakeem Beamon, but he's also still transitioning to tackle from the edge. Dvon Ellies is highly-regarded but played in just one game a year ago. Simply put, there is playing time to be had here as part of the third rotation. Brevard should have as good a shot as any to earn time there.

Linebacker - Curtis Jacobs

While Tyler Elsdon appears to have a bright future as a true MIKE linebacker, the depth chart isn't lacking in that area for the time being. With Ellis Brooks back and Jesse Luketa able to play inside, Elsdon will likely only see a few snaps in mop-up duty. Jacobs, on the other hand, could be in line for a significant role.

A lot here will depend on the decision from Micah Parsons on whether to return, but either way, Brent Pry has prided himself on building a linebacker unit that is flexible. Everyone in the room is expected to learn all three roles so they can fill in wherever they are needed. This not only creates a versatile unit that is positioned to get its best talent onto the field, but it allows for Pry to get valuable game experience for everyone in the unit. The starting three is pretty much set with Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks, and Jesse Luketa/Micah Parsons, but Lance Dixon, Charlie Katshir, and Jacobs should get plenty of run as well.

Cornerback - Joseph Johnson III

Penn State has put together what should be its strongest cornerback group since 2016 when Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, and John Reid patrolled the skies. Still, given how much James Franklin likes to get his young cornerbacks on the field early to get experience, it would be surprising to not see Johnson III get a good amount of playing time this fall. Tariq Castro-Fields, Keaton Ellis, and Marquis Wilson are cemented as the top-three in the unit, but things are very open after that thanks to the unfortunate injury woes of Donovan Johnson (who thanks to this eligibility rule, we could see a return in 2021). Johnson III will join Joey Porter Jr. and Daequan Hardy, among others, in the fight for playing time with the second and third units. Even if he doesn't earn regular playing time, it wouldn't be surprising in the slightest to see Johnson in every game this season in some capacity.

Safety - Enzo Jennings

Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker are the no-doubt starters, with Jonathan Sutherland and Tyler Rudolph waiting in the wings, but Jennings may be the best pure-safety prospect James Franklin has ever recruited and you can bet he'll get a chance to show it in 2020. Wade's versatility and ability to fill the STAR role on Penn State's defense should leave some regular playing time available on the back end, and the staff is likely to give Jennings every shot to earn that time. He has the look of a future all-Big Ten performer with his ability to patrol center field and fly to the ball.

I really only took into account playing time on offense or defense here. The reality is that we could very well see most of the freshman class surpass their four games just with special teams snaps alone, though those snaps are obviously less noticeable than the rest.

The 2020 season presents a great chance for the freshmen to make their mark earlier than normal. Only time will tell who makes good on that chance.