It’s not a typo, and the numbers aren’t some aberration. More than 40 percent of Penn State’s travel roster for the opener against Syracuse (31-of-74) was made up of players with freshman eligibility.
Sixteen true freshmen. Fifteen redshirt freshmen. It’s something the Nittany Lions are going to have to get used to as they deal with depth issues stemming from NCAA sanctions.
Many were there to play. Christian Hackenberg, Adam Breneman, Richy Anderson, Jordan Smith, Anthony Smith and Von Walker all got in the game as true freshmen. Eugene Lewis, Akeel Lynch, Austin Johnson, Brian Gaia, Malik Golden and Adam Cole made their Penn State debuts as redshirt freshmen.
Others came just to get a gameday experience. Some were even chosen for strategic purposes.
“You want to bring guys that deserve to go,” Lions coach Bill O’Brien said. “Certain guys came that have roles, like (true freshman quarterback) Austin Whipple came on the trip because he was signaling (plays on the sideline). And then you have young guys that we felt deserved to go and would be future players for us — this year or maybe this week or down the road.
“It’s important for those guys to get used to getting on a plane and understanding the routine and how serious it is. The meetings at the hotel. How you warm up before the game. How intense the locker room is. How alert you have to be during the game and how into the game you’ve got to be. Because it’s next man up and you have to be ready to go in.”
And more freshmen could be going in soon, possibly in Saturday’s home opener against Eastern Michigan.
In its media guide, Penn State only lists bios of true freshmen who enrolled early and have already spent a semester on campus. But each fall the program distributes a handful of bios for freshmen who arrived in the summer if they have a reasonable shot of seeing the field.
On Saturday, six such rookies were highlighted. Hackenberg and Walker both played against the Orange with Hackenberg obviously starting at quarterback and Walker as a punt returner.
The other four to watch out for are linebacker Brandon Bell, kicker Chris Gulla, tackle Andrew Nelson and defensive end Garrett Sickels.
Nelson worked a bit on the two-deep during training camp but was slowed by injury. Bell could see the field given the team’s lack of depth at linebacker. Sickels was one of the Lions’ highest-rated recruits in February’s class. Gulla would step in if anything were to happen to Sam Ficken.
Regardless of who does see the field in 2013, all of the freshmen have a special importance to the program.
“A lot of these guys in the freshman class could have gone anywhere,” O’Brien said. “(Hackenberg) had scholarships to over 50 schools. He committed to us before the sanctions came out, and he stuck with us when the sanctions came out.
“No matter what happens in his career, 10 years down the road — all of these guys that did that, because there is more than just him — they’re better men for having done that.”
Halftime ceremony scheduled
Penn State will honor the 40th anniversary of its undefeated 1973 team at halftime of Saturday’s game.
More than 50 players are expected to attend, including All-Americans Mark Markovich, Dan Natale, Ed O’Neil and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti.
“We can’t wait to welcome those guys back,” O’Brien said. “They have an open invitation to come give us advice over at the Lasch Building, I can tell you that. That’s a great football team. Anytime you go 12-0, that’s a fantastic accomplishment. They’re up on the stadium wall here and it will be great to have them back.”