For all but four of Penn State’s Class of 2017 members, Monday afternoon marks the first official practice of their Nittany Lion careers.
Within the next few weeks, many will invariably find themselves tagged by head coach James Franklin’s readiness scale of red, yellow or green. For the few who stand out enough to earn that green status, however, Franklin made clear one thing abundantly leading into this year’s preseason practice:
Given the program’s new levels of depth and experience, starting jobs earned will require more than it might have in the past.
“The exciting thing is, we don't really need any of these guys to come in and play as freshmen, but if they do, it's because they obviously are going to bring value and they're going to make us better. So I think we're in an ideal situation,” Franklin told reporters at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “I think we'll have some guys as true freshmen play significant roles for us this year and I think that's because some of those guys are really, really talented and they're going to beat out players.
“It's crazy; you're going to have some guys that played in the Big Ten Championship Game and we won, and they got beat out. So that's an ideal situation and it's going to keep everybody on their toes.”
Though Franklin refrained from offering up evaluations of any of the true freshmen on an individual basis, save for the January enrollees the program has already been through spring practices with, he did not the speed that exists throughout the group.
Noting that four new incoming freshmen have already clocked sub-4.4 hand-timed 40-yard dashes, those being Donovan Johnson, Tarique Castro-Fields, Journey Brown and Drew Hartlaub, Franklin went on to discuss the mentality that will permeate the program through preseason practice in August.
Namely, with the right performance, anyone and everyone has an opportunity to make an impact.
“Everybody in our program has the chance to earn a starting job. We're going to play the best guys,” said Franklin. “I don't care if you're a captain and a senior, a returning starter, if you get beat out by a true freshman, that's your problem. That's not my problem, that's your problem. Go out and earn your job. Keep your job.
“I think that's one of the things that's great is every single position has someone behind them that can take their job. A guy that's won in the Big Ten backed up by somebody that we feel like has the ability to play in the Big Ten and a third team guy who is exciting, that you're excited about his future, and we have that at pretty much every position.”
The mentality extends beyond Penn State’s true freshman class, too.
As Franklin painstakingly detailed recently, the program's evolution in recent years is a big reason for the newfound challenges that will exist for Penn State's new, younger players. With a complete roster that now numbers 79 players with freshman or sophomore eligibility, many positions are no longer quite as open as they once were.
Using the possibilities that exist for redshirt freshman Michal Menet on the offensive line as an example, specifically coming off a first year in the program in which he frequently earned rave reviews, Franklin said his role this season is a solid indicator of the ways in which the program has grown.
“He looks like a big time, Big Ten offensive lineman right now. The thing that's exciting is three years ago, we would have no choice but Michal Menet would already be listed in the starting lineup,” said Franklin. “The good thing is now we're in a situation where Michal Menet... if Michal is the starter, that means he beat out some guys that we won the Big Ten Championship with last year. So that's what you'd like to get is guys across the board having to earn their jobs where three years ago we had situations where almost the entire recruiting class was showing up and from day one they were in the two-deep.
“It is different, and I think that's going to be an interesting thing to see how our players handle that. They have seen players that after their redshirt freshman year, they started playing significant roles. That's going to happen less and less and that's going to take some patience and some maturity. Guys, what was happening before with so many walk-ons being put on scholarship, so many young players playing, that is not necessarily natural in major Division I football. That doesn't mean we're not going to play true freshmen that are really, really talented and have earned that opportunity. But my point is, in years past, it was just like that was happening and they thought that was normal, and it wasn't normal.”