When you think back to how you felt about Penn State heading into the Purdue game versus how you felt going into the Utah game, your thoughts likely changed big time and the 2022 recruiting class was a major reason why. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen established themselves as two of the top running backs in the Big Ten. Drew Shelton jumped into the fire as the starting left tackle and passed with flying colors. Abdul Carter became the first Penn State linebacker since Dan Connor to have 10 TFLs and 6+ sacks in a season. Simply put, the true freshmen left a significant mark on the Nittany Lions in 2022, and it’s safe to say that a Rose Bowl season does not happen if those guys don’t step up the way they did.
Fast forward a year and Penn State has welcomed in another talented group of true freshmen. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions this go around, they shouldn’t need quite the level of impact that they got from the 2022 group. But that doesn’t mean we won’t see a couple 2023 members break through the depth chart and take on roles for Penn State in the fall.
LB Ta’Mere Robinson, DE Jameial Lyons, LB Kaveion Keys, RB London Montgomery, S Dakaari Nelson, DT Tyriq Blanding, DE Mason Robinson, TE Joey Schlaffer, WR Carmelo Taylor, OG Anthony Donkoh, QB Jaxon Smolik, S Lamont Payne, DE Joseph Mupoyi, OG Alex Birchmeier
Not too many tough ones here. I thought about putting Ta’Mere Robinson in the “yellow light” category, but right now he’s linebacker No. 8 at best, so it’s tough to see him really pushing for a burnt redshirt. Dakaari Nelson was another one I thought about given that safety gets a little murky after the four-man rotation of Keaton Ellis, Jaylen Reed, Zakee Wheatley, and Kevin Winston, but it still feels a bit far-fetched to think Nelson won’t keep his redshirt. Alex Birchmeier was the last one who had a real case for yellow territory, and in most years he probably is there. But with what Penn State has on the interior — Landon Tengwall, Sal Wormley, JB Nelson, Vega Ioane, Hunter Nourzad, and Nick Dawkins — it appears a redshirt season for Birchmeier is highly probable.
OT J’ven Williams, CB Zion Tracy, RB Cam Wallace
Let’s start with the most prominent name of this grouping: J’ven Williams. The five-star offensive tackle is transitioning from high school Wing-T offensive guard to Big Ten offensive tackle. It’s a steep jump, and in an ideal world, Williams is not being thrown into the fire right away. But I think we’re going to see a concerted effort to get Williams some live game snaps, even if they are coming during mop up duty. We’ll see what happens in the transfer portal, but right now, Penn State has to be projecting that Williams will take over the starting right tackle spot in 2024. With that being the case, getting his feet wet this season will probably be good for him, and puts him squarely in yellow light territory.
Despite missing the spring with an injury, Zion Tracy makes a lot of sense as someone who will get on the field early. He did a prep season meaning he’s already old for his class, and the cornerback room lacks experienced depth with the post-spring departure of Storm Duck. Toss in that Tracy could help out on special teams too and this one is tailor-made for a yellow light.
Lastly, running back depth was helped with the transfer of former Minnesota running back Trey Potts, but there still remains an opportunity for one of the freshman running backs to get some mop up playing time. With London Montgomery still making his way back from a torn ACL last summer, it seems like Cam Wallace has the better shot at getting some playing time. One good sign for Wallace? He is listed at 184 pounds, up 9 pounds from his NSD weight of 175 pounds.
LB Tony Rojas, DB King Mack, CB Elliot Washington, TE Andrew Rappleyea
If you followed Penn State during the spring, you would know that Tony Rojas was the hottest name around. Whether it was him adding around 30 pounds of mass in a matter of months or his standout play during the Blue-White game, Rojas really erased any doubts that he wouldn’t carve out some sort of role for himself this fall. Penn State’s linebacker depth is good enough that he won’t be called upon in the way Abdul Carter was last season, but Rojas will be in the rotation.
Moving to the secondary, I’m pretty confident that King Mack and Elliot Washington will both play in more than four games. For Mack, he’s the likely heir apparent to the nickel role that Daequan Hardy has had since 2020, so getting him some time there and at safety seems like the smart move. As for Washington, the aforementioned departure of Storm Duck all but guaranteed that he’d be thrusted into action right away. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Washington always profiled as someone who would play early.
Last but not least, I am putting Andrew Rappleyea into the “green light” category because I am not a coward. I can’t, in good faith, compare him to Brock Bowers and then sit here before the season and say “probably a redshirt” as I smile and bat my eyelashes.
No. I won’t do that. Penn State’s tight end room is strong for sure — Khalil Dinkins is probably starting for multiple other Big Ten programs — but I will continue to stay committed to my “Rappleyea is different” take.