James Franklin and his staff no longer have to cautiously preserve players' redshirt eligibility, thanks to a new NCAA rule.
Football players can now play in up to four games in a season without forfeiting a year of eligibility, the Division I Council announced Wednesday afternoon. The initial proposal by the ACC was widely supported by coaches, including Franklin, and expected by many to pass. Franklin called the proposed rule change "a really good idea" back in April.
"What I like about the four games, and the model that I think we would use, is you play the first three games to see who can actually do it," Franklin added. "Then pull the guys back that aren't ready and allow the guys that are to continue playing during the season."
It certainly helps Penn State and programs across the country. It gives teams flexibility to have younger players temporarily fill in for injured teammates or simply pick up valuable snaps without losing a redshirt. For example, Nittany Lions offensive lineman Will Fries — who redshirted in 2016 — could have been useful as Penn State figured out a fluid injury situation in the trenches. But to fill in for a game or two wasn't worth losing an entire season of eligibility.
Now, Franklin doesn't have to worry about that. Promising true freshmen can play in expected blowouts of Appalachian State and Kent State and make a case for legitimate playing time, an opportunity they'd otherwise be barred from with a preseason redshirt decision. Perhaps their fourth game would be a postseason appearance, gaining invaluable experience for the future.
Franklin surely has been planning for this proposal to pass, and the rule will undoubtedly affect certain players and positions on Penn State's more than others.
Let's take a look at who might benefit the most from this rule change.
Tight end: Who will replace record-setting tight end Mike Gesicki? The NCAA's rule should help position coach Tyler Bowen and the Nittany Lions' staff pick a successor.
Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth — who enrolled in January and May, respectively — were starting options before the rule change. The four-star studs who combined for 66 catches, 1,673 yards and 16 touchdowns as seniors were always going to challenge returners Jon Holland, Danny Dalton and Nick Bowers. This just gives Penn State's decision-makers even more tape to work with, and it keeps redshirt options in-play if a veteran emerges with the job.
Kuntz, a 6-foot-7 mismatch and Camp Hill product, and Freiermuth, a 250-pounder who bullied Massachusetts competition, could pose similar problems to Appalachian State, Pittsburgh and Kent State. It will be interesting to see if the early enrollees' rapport with Trace McSorley translates in the first three games of the 2018 season — and if either can cement themselves early as a long-term fixture in Penn State's offense.
Defensive line: The Nittany Lions are loaded at defensive end; but lack of depth on the interior is a cause for concern. Penn State loses seniors Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren and Tyrell Chavis, leaving Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor as the projected starters. Behind them, there's potential with plenty of question marks.
Enter Penn State's 2018 freshmen. Four-star defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher and three-star prospect Judge Culpepper enrolled in May and could factor in.
Mustipher (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) and Culpepper (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) combined for 30 tackles for loss and 22 sacks as seniors, and they ought to be given the opportunity to show that big-play ability in Penn State's first three games. Given assistant coach Sean Spencer's constant rotations along the front-four, don't be surprised if Culpepper and Mustipher get some legitimate run.
Special teams: Identifying special teams contributors may not be as crucial as finding a starting tight end or defensive tackle depth, but the NCAA rule presents an opportunity for coordinator Phil Galiano.
Cornerback Jordan Miner was a dangerous returner, racking up 669 kickoff yards on 23 attempts (29.1 yards per) as a junior and senior at Wiregrass Ranch in Florida. Defensive backs Trent Gordon and Isaiah Humphries, two early enrollees, could find themselves making tackles on kickoff and punt coverage. Even linebacker Jesse Luketa might find himself out there.
Special teams is less than glamorous — but for a freshman, any live action is valuable. And with the NCAA's new rule, redshirt candidates can now make an impact, big or small, from the get-go.