Last Wednesday, the NCAA announced a new rule that would allow football players the opportunity to play four games without burning their redshirt. It remains to be seen how college football coaches — and James Franklin specifically — will utilize the new rule, but the new policy undoubtedly benefits first-year players who were in the “yellow light” position, and may not have seen the field unless there was injury. Now with the benefit of being able to play four games, those yellow light players will have the opportunity to prove themselves on the field on Saturdays with the hopes that their in-game performance will turn the light green.
Here are the four Penn State players whose redshirt stock changed the most because of NCAA’s new rule.
1. TIGHT END ZACK KUNTZ
When the ruling was announced, Kuntz was the first name I thought of. At 6-foot-7 pushing 6-foot-8 with good athleticism and coordination, Kuntz has the potential be a unique weapon in the offense as a freshman. The problem is that Kuntz — who enrolled early in January — is only listed at 232 pounds, which is much on the lighter side for a tight end, let alone one with his height. He’s also new to the position, having only played wide receiver in high school, so the chances he’d be ready to line up on the inside and be even a mediocre blocker were relatively slim.
I could have foreseen a scenario where Kuntz flashes as a pass-catcher during practice. Maybe playing somewhat of a jumbo slot/h-back role, but the staff not wanting to burn his redshirt on a role that may not end up translating to the game. Now with the new four games in place, I think they can get creative and try something like that out with Kuntz. See if he’s productive in two or three games, and then decide from there if they want to keep him in or preserve his redshirt.
2. LINEBACKER JESSE LUKETA
Another early enrollee, Luketa was hopeful to help the linebacker group this season even before the new four-game policy. To put it simply, the Nittany Lions are not in a good position at linebacker, especially when compared to the rest of the program. Outside of Koa Farmer, no one is cemented in a starting role, meaning a young buck like Luketa should be able to get some run during the early part of the season now.
Linebacker is one of those spots that, like quarterback, is difficult to get a good read on just from practice. It’s hard to simulate a true in-game situation for them, one where their instincts are tested down after down. You have to throw those guys into the fire and see how they react. I think Brandon Smith in 2016 was a good example of this. He’s someone who only played because both middle linebackers (Cabinda and Wartman-White) were injured, but he clearly showed he deserved a spot in the rotation.
Now, that’s the case of a walk-on, but the point still stands in regards to Luketa — there’s a lot to be learned about a linebacker in an actual game situation. Of course, what could be learned is a negative — anyone remember Von Walker starting at linebacker against Northwestern in 2014? — but at least it’s known, and even that could be a positive for Luketa.
3. TIGHT END PAT FREIERMUTH
I believe out of everyone on this list, Freiermuth has the “greenest” yellow light, which is why he isn’t ranked higher here. I think he already had a better than 50/50 chance of burning his redshirt even prior to the ruling, but now that he’ll get a free four games to prove himself, I think it’s even more likely he isn’t redshirted.
Similar to linebacker, tight end is a mish-mash of a lot of unproven players. Nick Bowers is probably the best of the group, and has looked good when he’s healthy, but that “when healthy” part is the problem. Jon Holland has had an up-and-down career — he popped up last spring as really making strides, but things were quiet on that front this spring. There’s also Danny Dalton who is just heading into his redshirt sophomore season, but like Holland, just hasn’t quite put it together yet.
This is where Freiermuth comes in. Despite playing so-so competition in Massachusetts, Freiermuth is already a pretty advanced tight end, showing ability in the passing game, but perhaps most importantly, in the blocking game. He’s a big, well-developed kid already, tipping the scales at 250 pounds when he enrolled in May. Freiermuth is also the oldest freshman on the roster, as he turns 20 in October, which I think does count for something. Not to say he’s a finished product physically, but I think being a year or a year-and-a-half older than a normal incoming freshman does give him an advantage.
One last thing: I think ideally the staff wouldn’t want to burn the redshirts of both Kuntz and Freiermuth, but their roles — at least this coming season — would differ so much that there wouldn’t be an overlap.
4. DEFENSIVE TACKLE JUDGE CULPEPPER
We’ve seen the past two seasons the way Sean Spencer likes to rotate his interior defenders. In 2016, six defensive tackles — Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran, Kevin Givens, Robert Windsor, Tyrell Chavis, and Antoine White — played at least 20% of snaps, with none playing more than 45%. In 2017 it was more of the same, with five defensive tackles (the same group minus White) playing at least 27% of snaps while not playing more than 45%.
We’ll most likely see something similar this season, but the youth and inexperience behind Givens and Windsor makes it difficult to project exactly which three to four prospects work their way into the rotation. With the most experienced player of the group (Ellison Jordan) having played just 10% of snaps last season, the depth chart truly is wide open, which should give an unlikely freshman like Judge Culpepper an opportunity.
Culpepper is new to defensive tackle having played mostly defensive end in high school, but he’s already done a great job of packing on size, enrolling at 275 pounds. Knowing Culpepper’s massive frame, it wouldn’t be crazy to think he’s tipping the scales at 290 come the end of the summer. If that’s the case, Culpepper could be an intriguing option on the inside, even if he’s not at his physical peak just yet.
Note: List did not include Micah Parsons, Justin Shorter, Ricky Slade, or PJ Mustipher, all of whom I’d list as “Green Light” players.