Pat Freiermuth may have already scored the easiest and toughest touchdowns of his Penn State career in his first five games.
The true freshman tight end had first found the end zone for Penn State three weeks ago at Illinois. Wide open in the flat, Freiermuth stumbled by himself as he turned toward the pylon and had to leap and stretch to barely get the ball over the goal line.
A week later against Ohio State, he went airborne and snagged a fade with one hand in the back of the end zone — all while a Buckeyes linebacker tugged at his jersey from behind for a pass interference penalty.
Slightly more difficult. But they both counted for six points just the same.
In a Penn State freshman class that was as touted as any the Nittany Lions have signed in recent history, Freiermuth has distinguished himself through the first month of the season.
With the Lions needing a replacement for record-setting tight end Mike Gesicki, a second-round draft pick, Freiermuth has flashed potential that could make him the next standout at the position.
“I think the thing that we noticed pretty quickly is the stage just isn’t too big for him,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “It hasn’t been in the weight room. It hasn’t been in practice. It hasn’t been in meetings. You never know (how a player will react) when the lights come on, but it hasn’t seemed to (affect him) there, as well. He’s a very confident guy. He’s a very poised guy.
“He’s physical. That’s something that we have shown the team, examples of big runs and big plays that he’s had where he’s pancaked people. He’s playing really well right now.”
And headed into Saturday’s game against Michigan State, the rookie is listed atop the team’s depth chart at tight end.
The caveat there is that the team’s in-season depth charts typically reflect how the previous game played out. Freiermuth started against Ohio State, though usual starter Jonathan Holland did not play and Danny Dalton has missed the last two games with an injury. Nick Bowers sat out the first three games. So it’s not a guarantee that Freiermuth will start again on Saturday.
“We also have a lot of confidence in our other tight ends, as well,” Franklin said. “A couple of those guys have been banged up or had some injuries and things like that. It’s great having Bowers back. We think those two guys are a really nice complement. We felt like Holland had a really good offseason and summer camp. So being able to get him back, as well. We’re expecting to get all these guys back this week, and Danny Dalton has done some really nice things for us.
“I think it’s a really good unit and we have enough depth there. So that when we do have a bump or bruise or whatever it may be, we have enough depth there that guys can step in and get the job done for us.”
Freiermuth is one of seven members of the 2018 class to have received the “green light” label from Penn State coaches to play throughout the season. A new NCAA rule allows players to appear in up to four games and still be able to redshirt. Here’s an overview of the groups so far.
GREEN LIGHTS (7)
Five players are already past the four-game threshold. Linebackers Micah Parsons and Jesse Luketa and kickers Jake Pinegar and Rafael Checa have joined Freiermuth on the field in all five games so far.
Parsons, the highest-rated recruit in the class, has split time with Koa Farmer at the weak-side linebacker spot, picking up 23 tackles in five games. Luketa is the No. 3 middle linebacker behind Jan Johnson and Ellis Brooks and has been a fixture on special teams.
Pinegar is 3-for-6 on field goals thus far, with all three makes under 40 yards. Checa has handled the kickoffs, earning touchbacks on 21 of 40 kicks.
Two others — running back Ricky Slade and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher — played in the first four games but did not see the field against the Buckeyes. But both will continue to play.
“Yeah, I don’t think anything’s really changed,” Franklin said. “We had already green-lighted Ricky. We had already green-lighted P.J. We had already kind of made that decision. We weren’t really counting games with those guys. Unless something happened, we were going to play those guys this year.”
Slade has four touchdowns in his first four games and is now the No. 2 running back behind Miles Sanders following a season-ending injury to Mark Allen. Mustipher has six tackles in limited reps but could be in line for a bigger role down the line. The Lions are thin at tackle, enough to move guard C.J. Thorpe over to defense. Ellison Jordan has missed the last two games and Antonio Shelton will miss the first half Saturday because of a targeting ejection against Ohio State.
YELLOW LIGHTS (8)
Eight other freshmen have appeared in at least one game, led by two apiece for defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Nick Tarburton. Oweh picked up two sacks against Kent State.
A trio of receivers in Daniel George, Justin Shorter and Jahan Dotson all played against the Golden Flashes, as did cornerback Trent Gordon, tackle Rasheed Walker and tight end Zack Kuntz.
Shorter, rated the top receiver in the country in the 2018 class, might have been in line for a bigger role before suffering an injury in training camp.
“Justin Shorter got banged up and got some bruises and things like that during camp and missed a significant amount of time,” Franklin said. “And I would say it probably seems like it’s more significant because when you’re a young guy, those reps are critical.
“So it’s delayed some of his opportunities and slowed down some of his development. But we feel really good about that whole freshman class. That’s a really good class. They have all done some really good things at times.”
RED LIGHTS (7)
Classmates who have not seen the field and are headed for a redshirt are quarterback Will Levis, offensive linemen Juice Scruggs and Bryce Effner, defensive linemen Judge Culpepper and Aeneas Hawkins, defensive back Isaiah Humphries and linebacker Charlie Katshir.
Two others, offensive lineman Nana Asiedu and cornerback Jordan Miner, were forced to give up the game for medical reasons.