The advice from the coaches was simple enough.
“They just tell me to pay attention and stay focused,” Eugene Lewis said. “Just be ready.”
Penn State’s staff saw the progress it was looking for in practice this past week. So when Saturday’s game against Purdue rolled around, Lewis and some of his fellow underclassmen on both sides of the ball were going to get their shot.
For Lewis, the Wyoming Valley West quarterback-turned-Penn State receiver, it meant getting the most playing time since the Big Ten opener out at Indiana. And he was far from alone.
Bill O’Brien liked the effort and improvement he saw during the week and the Nittany Lions coach was able to move along the development of some true freshmen and redshirt freshmen against a struggling opponent.
Lewis and tight end Adam Breneman on offense. Linebacker Brandon Bell and safety Malik Golden on defense. A handful more on special teams.
“You know, those guys have practiced well,” O’Brien said. “They come out and they’ve done a nice job in practice and they’ve played well on special teams. Malik Golden and Brandon Bell have played really well on special teams.
“I think as a young player, that’s where you really earn the right to play on offense and defense. That’s what we did, we moved them up. We’ll watch the tape and see what they did, but I felt both of those guys played aggressively today and it was good for them to get in there.”
As for Lewis, O’Brien had made it a point to say at the start of the week that the second-year wideout would be getting more snaps. They came right from the Lions’ opening drive as Lewis threw a few nice downfield blocks to help the Lions quickly find the end zone.
He finished the day second on the team with three catches, his most since grabbing six against Indiana on Oct. 5 with starter Brandon Felder out with an injury.
“I think I did really well in practice this week,” Lewis said. “There were some here-and-there things that I need to get right, but that’s practice and that’s what we have it for. I think I had a pretty good week and it paid off.”
Lewis had redshirted last year as he worked to polish his route-running.
He said Saturday that he has come a long way in that regard and that there’s more progress to be made.
“When I did play receiver (in high school), I didn’t run too many routes,” Lewis said. “I was just running gos — and you’re just faster than everybody, you jump higher than everybody. So when I got here, it was a whole bunch of routes I needed to learn.
“It was a lot I had to learn and there’s a lot I still need to get better at.”
He was far from the only one looking to carve out a bigger role looking ahead to the 2014 season.
Breneman, a true freshman, continued his sharp improvement with his first career touchdown, snagging a pass over the middle, fighting through a tackle and extending the ball over the goal line.
“That touchdown he had was a great effort,” O’Brien said. “Adam, boy I’m glad we’ve got him for three more years. He’s a good football player.”
On defense, the Lions had one sequence where a freshman was lining up at each level of the unit — Austin Johnson up front, Bell at linebacker and Golden as the deep man in the secondary.
Johnson has been a regular at defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman and came up with a fumble recovery against the Boilermakers.
Bell, a true freshman, has played primarily on special teams but saw his first extended look at linebacker on Saturday. He split some reps with redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, who was back in the starting lineup following a season-ending injury to Ben Kline.
Bell had three tackles. Wartman made up for a shaky first half by collecting his first career sack in the second, forcing a fumble on the play for good measure.
Golden, a redshirt freshman who had worked at receiver last year, got reps at safety and had one tackle.
When true freshman special teams fixture Von Walker left the game with an apparent injury, it was fellow walk-on Gregg Garrity — son of the former Lions standout receiver from the early 80s — who came on. Garrity got his first career touch on a punt return, as the 5-foot-9, 147-pounder picked up 9 yards.
For all of those young players, it’s just a matter of making the most of the chances they get.
“Absolutely. You never know when your next opportunity is going to be,” Lewis said. “It can be taken away like that. So whenever I get a chance to go out there, I do everything to the best of my ability and I just thank the Lord for giving me another opportunity today.”
Senior Day kickoff set
Penn State will play its final home game of the season this week, hosting Nebraska for senior day at Beaver Stadium.
It was announced late Saturday night that the game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. with the Big Ten Network carrying the broadcast.