Pat Freiermuth was not named one of the eight semifinalists for the Mackey Award on Monday. But he could potentially be one of the top tight ends selected in the NFL draft.
The Penn State standout confirmed Tuesday that he is indeed eligible to enter the 2020 draft, should he choose to do so. Though he is only a true sophomore — the general rule is that players must be three years removed from high school to declare — Freiermuth played five years of high school ball, so he is three years removed from when his original class graduated. He ended up repeating his sophomore year when he enrolled at a prep school.
Still, the situation is a very rare one, so there was some question on Freiermuth’s status, especially as he rocketed up Penn State’s record books this fall. But there is no uncertainty on the matter now.
“Yeah, I know I am (eligible),” he said.
Not that it guarantees that Freiermuth, who just turned 21 last month, has made any decisions on going pro.
“I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest,” Freiermuth said. “I haven’t talked about it with my parents or the coaching staff or anything about it. Something I’ll actually think about after the reason. Right now I’m focused on Ohio State and the season moving forward.”
If the Lions are to make it a game with the No. 2 Buckeyes on Saturday in Columbus — something no opponent has managed yet this season — Freiermuth will have to be a big part of it.
Among tight ends nationally, Freiermuth is tied for third in touchdowns (seven), 12th in receiving yards (424) and tied for 13th in receptions (34). And the Massachusetts native is getting noticed by pro scouts, particularly by people around his native New England, where he has picked up a nickname of “Baby Gronk” while wearing Rob Gronkowski’s No. 87.
Even the man himself weighed in during an interview this month with the Big Ten Network.
“It’s something special when you hear a player in the younger ranks that has a nickname ‘Gronk,’ that wears the number 87,” said Gronkowski, who retired this offseason after a Hall of Fame caliber career. “You have to bring it. You have to bring your A-game every time you hit the field. You have to show them who’s boss.”
Puzzlingly, it didn’t even land Freiermuth a spot among the semifinalists for the Mackey Award, which will eventually be pared down to three finalists. Freiermuth’s predecessor Mike Gesicki was in the final three for the honor in 2017.
Lions coach James Franklin admits that he’s biased in favor of his player but was still left scratching his head over the snub.
“I can’t imagine there’s eight tight ends in the country that people would choose ahead of Pat Freiermuth,” said Franklin, who also stuck up for linebacker Jan Johnson, who was not named a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy as the country’s top former walk-on.
“Could there be a couple? OK, I can live with that. But eight? No. No.”
“If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s in the NFL, first-round guy,” defensive end Shaka Toney said. “He’s not going to be thinking about awards he missed out on. He’s going to think about the times he had here, just like the rest of us. Individual accolades are OK, but championships, enjoying time with your brothers mean the world to you.”
Don’t expect to hear an update on KJ Hamler’s availability for Saturday until late in the week, possibly not until Saturday morning.
Because as of Tuesday afternoon, Penn State coaches weren’t sure themselves.
The star wide receiver left Saturday’s win over Indiana late in the first quarter after landing awkwardly on his head on a kick return and appeared to be going through concussion protocol on the sideline. After emerging from the injury tent, Hamler’s helmet was taken away from him, and he did not return to the game.
“Like I said last week after the game, we’re hopeful (he’ll play),” Franklin said. “Obviously we won’t know. There’s medical policies and procedures that we go through. We have to go through a series of steps and things like that.
“But we were hopeful after the game. I still remain hopeful. Those decisions, I don’t make. I won’t make them now and I never have since I’ve been at Penn State. … Again, the medical professionals will make those decisions.”
That rhetoric is very deliberate for a reason.
Back in August, Franklin and athletic director Sandy Barbour were named in a lawsuit by former team doctor Scott Lynch, who alleged that Franklin pressured him into clearing players to return from injuries — and that Barbour and the university ignored his complaints about it and removed him from the position in violation of the state whistleblower law.
Franklin has categorically denied the allegations and Penn State has sought to have the suit dismissed.
One player who is medically cleared to play but has been held out the last two weeks is running back Noah Cain.
The true freshman left the Michigan State game after just two drives with an apparent lower body injury. Though he suited up against Minnesota and Indiana, he did not see the field in either game, with Journey Brown taking the lead in both ahead of occasional appearances by Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade.
“I actually think we could have played him last week,” Franklin said. “It didn’t make sense on the health that we have with those other three guys. Obviously every week that goes by that he doesn’t play, the likelihood and the chances of him being closer to 100%, happen.”
Cain’s relative inexperience as a true freshman also played into the decision, as lack of practice reps would affect him more than a veteran.
“If Noah Cain was a returning starter in year three, you may let him go without practicing all week because the amount of football he’s played,” Franklin said. “But at this point I don’t know if you would necessarily do that.”