A former sports editor of mine used to say that, according to Joe Paterno, “Penn State has a young team for the 26th consecutive year.’’
Joe tended to overstate his team’s youth, much in the same way he’d insist that the Akrons or East Carolinas or Temples of the world were annually, “a good, solid, tough football team.’’
Penn State has another young group this year, by general consensus. Phil Steele, of ESPN and indispensible-preseason-magazine fame, has an experience metric. According to it, the Nittany Lions rank 123rd among 130 FBS teams in experience, and second-last, ahead of only Purdue, in the Big Ten.
STATE COLLEGE — In the darkest hour of last season, after a one-point loss to Ohio State, Pe…
James Franklin pushed back only mildly at his media-day press conference Aug. 3.
“I agree with you guys, we are a young team, but we relied on a bunch of inexperienced players last year and they are all a year older,’’ he said.
I’m going to push back a little harder: 1. Experience isn’t as common and doesn’t matter as much as it used to, and 2. Penn State isn’t as effectively young as you may think, or Steele’s metric indicates.
Franklin concurs with Point 1.
The recent player exodus from Penn State’s football program isn’t evidence the ship is sinking.
“There's guys that are definitely thrust into roles that under, … I don't even know if I want to say normal, because there's a new normal now in college football with a lot of the rules,’’ he said at media day.
He refers to the rule, new last year, that allows players to appear in four games and still redshirt that season. It means a redshirt freshman, for example, who’s good enough to play now, probably played last year.
He also refers to looser transfer rules that have created something like free agency in the sport. Players who don’t play early are tempted to move on, and players moving on creates rapid roster turnover.
Now look at Penn State’s probable starting offense and defense, which strikes me as pretty well set.
The offensive line, where experience really is indispensable, will include three fourth-year players (Steven Gonzalez, Michal Menet and Will Fries) and a third-year player (the winner of the C.J. Thorpe-Mike Miranda battle).
Yes, a redshirt freshman, Rasheed Walker, figures to start at the critical left tackle spot, and that will be one of the stories of the season.
The defensive line looks like a fifth-year (Robert Windsor), two fourth-years (Shaka Toney and Antonio Shelton) and a third year (Yetur Gross-Matos) who’s one of the best D-ends in the country.
Of the back seven on defense, six are third-year or older. The seventh is sophomore Micah Parsons, who led the team in tackles last year while learning to be a linebacker.
The quarterback, Sean Clifford, is a rookie starter, but also a third-year guy. Four true freshmen have started at QB in the national championship game since 2017.
Running back will be manned by sophomores and freshmen, but they’re all blue-chippers, and that’s what happens when you send first- and second-round draft picks to the NFL in consecutive years.
The tight end is a sophomore (Pat Freiermuth) who may have been the best freshman TE in the country. The wide receiver group is legitimately young. A redshirt freshman, Justin Shorter, will almost certainly start, and he’s a lot like Rasheed Walker - an elite talent whose time, fully ready or not, is now.
Further, almost all the starters played significant snaps at their position before this year. The exceptions, I would argue, are Clifford, Walker, Shorter and safety Lamont Wade, and even they won’t be pure rookies.
Every good program in the country, including Clemson and Alabama, will rely on kids as young, and as unproven, as those four.
Lots of things could beat Penn State this fall, but youth, and/or experience, shouldn’t be among them.