McGONIGAL: Five freshmen who stood out in Penn State's football victory over Pitt
- Linebacker Micah Parsons tied for the Penn State lead in tackles Saturday vs. Pitt with seven.
- Wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer scored his first career TD for Penn State.
- Wide receiver K.J. Hamler has become a breakout star for Penn State over the first two games.
Seventeen true or redshirt freshmen have seen the field in Penn State’s first two games of the season — and several have made significant impacts.
After re-watching Saturday’s 51-6 win over Pitt, here are five fresh faces who stood out.
Micah Parsons, linebacker: Parsons is already making a play for the starting WILL linebacker job.
The five-star true freshman — who switched from defensive end to linebacker upon arriving in Happy Valley — is basically splitting snaps with fifth-year senior Koa Farmer (one tackle at Pitt). In seven full series, Parsons logged 34 snaps — 48.6 percent of Penn State’s total defensive snaps on Saturday night. And he looked comfortable out there.
Parsons tied for the team lead with seven tackles. He played during Penn State’s entire second defensive series. The only other non-starter to play that whole drive was safety Lamont Wade, who is pushing Garrett Taylor for time. It’s telling that Parsons was out there that early in the game.
Of his seven tackles, four of them came in the first half, so it’s not like he was racking up numbers in garbage time. Parsons used his freakish closing speed and played his gaps well, recording four tackles within a yard of the line of scrimmage.
Parsons did have mistakes. He took a bad angle on Shocky Jacques-Louis’ 38-yard end-around in the first quarter and popped but didn’t wrap up Qadree Ollison on a third down later in the first half.
But Parsons made an instant impact on the defensive side of the ball — and earned more snaps moving forward.
K.J. Hamler, wide receiver: Hamler is quickly becoming a star.
On Penn State’s third offensive play of the night, Hamler came in motion, received the handoff from Trace McSorley, shimmied past Pitt safety Damar Hamlin and skated to the end zone. In the second quarter, he found a soft spot in the Panthers’ zone, catching an easy seam-route touchdown.
But on a play before his second career touchdown reception, Hamler put in some dirty work, leading the way for a Sanders swing pass that went 21 yards.
Hamler has done it all to start the season.
Donovan Johnson, cornerback: If you haven’t noticed him yet, keep an eye on No. 2. Johnson is doing well so far in Marcus Allen’s old number.
With John Reid absent against Pitt, the redshirt freshman was Penn State’s starting nickel corner. He didn’t make a tackle because he didn’t need to.
Johnson was brought on as the nickel for seven obvious passing downs: Six third downs of nine yards or longer and a first-and-15 in the third quarter. On those seven plays, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett completed three passes for 20 total yards. In coverage, Johnson wasn’t targeted because he had his man or zone locked down. And twice, the speedster blitzed off the edge and forced Pickett out of the pocket.
If Reid returns to the field against Kent State, Johnson could be relegated to a lesser role. But when called upon, he performed.
Pat Freiermuth, tight end: Freiermuth logged his first career reception against the Panthers. That’s not why he’s on this list.
The true freshman — who stands at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds — might be the Nittany Lions’ best blocking tight end.
Freiermuth showed that when he was trusted in a dicey spot. With a minute to go in the first quarter, backed up against their own 1-yard line, McSorley handed it off to Sanders. The back was stymied at the line before cutting right and finding an open hole — space created by Freiermuth. The tight end kicked 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end James Folston out of the play and sprung Sanders free.
If not for a Brandon Polk block in the back penalty, Sanders would have had a 79-yard gain. Instead, he had to settle for 41 yards.
Still, Freiermuth proved why he was a green lit true freshman. Look for more key blocks out of him down the road.
Mac Hippenhammer, wide receiver: Like Freiermuth, Hippenhammer also recorded his first career catch. And that is why he made the cut.
Hippenhammer hauled in an 11-yard touchdown reception from McSorley to push Penn State’s lead to 37-6 in the fourth quarter. Three wideouts lined up on the left side with Polk in the middle and Hippenhammer in the slot. Polk took his defensive back inside and opened Hippenhammer’s corner post, which he ran crisply. The redshirt freshman wideout created separation from Pitt safety Dennis Briggs and came back for McSorley’s throw for the score.
Hippenhammer saw the field in the first half, too, and blocked well. If something happens to Hamler, Penn State fans should feel good about Hippenhammer.