STATE COLLEGE — In college football, the scoreboard often becomes the best dictator of strategy.
For Penn State on Saturday, it sent a message for a team pining to build quality young depth in a year where doing that is simultaneously more readily doable and more strategically challenging than ever before.
In the 63-10 walloping of Kent State at Beaver Stadium, the Nittany Lions used seven true freshman players who had never appeared in a college game. There are no statistics that govern such facts, but it’s likely, in Penn State’s long football history, seven true freshmen seeing their first game action even this far into the season is unprecedented.
But in 2018, it’s not a matter of whether it’s the prudent way to build a talent base. It’s a matter of what the smartest way is to go about it.
“It turned out, the way the score went this week, that this was the week to do it,” head coach James Franklin said. “We talk about it every week. But the way the game played out, we were ready to get those guys in.”
Rule change: In June, the NCAA’s Division I council approved a major change to football’s redshirt rules, allowing players this season to appear in as many as four games without having to burn a year of eligibility.
Some coaches have discussed how exactly to incorporate the group of players who generally would have had to sit out the entire season in order to keep four years of eligibility moving forward; some opting to dangle the playing-time carrot as a means of motivation for young players to buy into their role in the program, while others promised to use it as a hedge against injuries.
Penn State’s philosophy became a little bit more clear Saturday.
A handful of members of Penn State’s 2018 recruiting class will be available all season. The Nittany Lions have been getting major contributions, for example, from linebacker Micah Parsons, kickers Jake Pinegar and Rafael Checa and tight end Pat Freiermuth. But third-string running back Ricky Slade and middle linebacker Jesse Luketa have seen spot duty in each of the Lions’ first three wins, with the relative certainty they’ll continue to do so.
But the seven true freshman players who made their debuts against Kent State — receivers Daniel George, Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter, tight end Zack Kuntz, offensive tackle Rasheed Walker, defensive end Jayson Oweh and cornerback Trent Gordon — may have signaled some of the strategies Penn State will implement in using true freshmen as the season moves forward.
Short week may have dictated strategy: Franklin mentioned that playing so many youngsters Saturday had something to do with the Nittany Lions preparing for their next opponent — Illinois, in the Big Ten opener Friday night in Champaign — on a shortened schedule. As part of that, Penn State will practice today, its typical day off, so getting the starters and top backups out early was seen as closer to a necessity than a luxury.
But Franklin said he’s also looking at ways to expand depth throughout the season by way of the new rule. For example, true freshman Nick Tarburton, who played against Appalachian State and Pittsburgh, didn’t see action against Kent State. Instead, Penn State used the lanky, quick Oweh, who registered the first two sacks of his career.
The thought behind that: Save Tarburton for a game or two later in the year if need be, and preserve his redshirt while also maintaining depth at defensive end by using Oweh in between. Essentially, alternating the games in which Oweh and Tarburton are available gives Penn State eight games worth of an extra defensive end while also maintaining four years of eligibility for two promising players.
“The way (Saturday) played out enabled us to use a number of guys who fit that scenario,” Franklin said. “A lot of guys played for the first time (Saturday), which is really important. It creates a healthy locker room where there’s a lot of guys that feel like they had a role in the game.”