Penn State Football’s Young Playmakers
Through the first two games of the season Nittany Lions’ youngest players have been the ones to make the most impact. Coming into the 2018 season there were many question marks on both offense and defense. Penn State football’s young playmakers have been the ones to fill the gaps so far this season. More than a dozen true or redshirt freshmen have seen playing time already during the 2018 season. The ones that have stood out the most are wide receivers KJ Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer, linebacker Micah Parsons, and kicking duo Rafael Checa and Jake Pinegar.
Young Wide Receivers Step Up
With the veteran receivers struggling through the first two games, it has been redshirt freshman KJ Hamler leading the charge for the Nittany Lions with redshirt freshman Mac Hippenhammer also making waves.
Hamler has six receptions for 107 yards, two receiving touchdowns and one rushing touchdown this season. He leads the team in receiving yards and is behind only veteran Juwan Johnson in receptions. Hamler has done it all to start the season. Against Appalachian State he got his first touchdown reception in his first game. He also broke the kick return rules in the fourth quarter and instead of taking a knee in the end zone he stuttered a few times, giving Nittany Lion fans heart palpitations.
Hamler takes the game in his hands
With less than two minutes left in the game and Penn State down by a touchdown, Hamler decided to take the ball out of the end zone, something that he was told not to do. He jetted out of the end zone, got a key block from tight end Jon Holland, and took off for 52-yards. After the game Hamler said, “I hesitated, but I saw two minutes left on the clock, and I said we needed a play. If I would’ve gotten tackled on the 12, that would’ve been bad.” He did not get tackled. Instead he kept the Nittany Lions alive in a close game that ultimately led to a win.
Senior signal caller Trace McSorley has nothing but high praise for the young receiver. “Once you get the ball in his hands, you saw it,” McSorley said after the win against App. State. “He made us a huge play on a kick return where he’s probably all but swallowed up early, made a guy miss, then accelerated down the sidelines. That’s who he is.” Hamler did it again against Pitt a week ago. Scoring his first rushing touchdown of his collegiate career. Made a Pitt safety miss and skirted into the end zone.
Another Redshirt Freshman Looking To Make Plays
Hamler is not the only young receiver catching looks. Redshirt freshman Mac Hippenhammer recorded his first touchdown grab on his first reception in the third quarter against Pitt last week. Hippenhammer is coming along nicely. He had several key blocks during the first half last week as well.
With the veteran receivers struggling early in the season, Penn State football’s young playmakers on offense have stepped up. As seen through the first two games there is a lot of talent for McSorley to throw to. The young receivers are ready for more responsibility. While Hamler is already a starter, look for Hippenhammer to get more looks as the season progresses.
An Outside Linebacker With A Nose For The Ball
True freshman Micah Parsons is living up to the preseason hype. The outside linebacker is always around the ball. He has an instinct that many do not have. While there are a few things that still need cleaned up, the mistakes are easily fixable. He has proven that he needs to be on the field.
Many of the biggest improvements in college football come between week one and week two, after youngsters get used to playing under the bright lights. Parsons is evidence of that for the Nittany Lions. In his first ever collegiate game against Appalachian State Parsons showed his athleticism, but also showed where he needs to work. He was blocked out of position on the kick return for a touchdown, but he redeemed himself just before the half when he recovered a Penn State onside kick. He had four tackles in his debut on defense. When he was noticeably out of position, he was able to make up for it with his speed. Something he will not be able to do entering Big Ten play.
Parsons improved drastically between weeks one and two. He saw much more playing time against Pitt. He essentially split defensive snaps with senior Koa Farmer. Parsons had seven tackles against Pitt, four of which coming in the first half. Furthermore, four of the seven came within one yard of the line of scrimmage.
While Parsons may still be showing that he is a true freshman at times, he is improving. If that is the performance that he has given through the first two games of his Penn State career, Nittany Lion fans are in store for even more than expected this season and in the coming years.
True Freshman Kicking Duo
There was a lot of concern entering the 2018 season surrounding the kicking game. Head coach James Franklin has tried to fill the gap left by Tyler Davis by utilizing two freshman kickers for the 2018 season.
Field goal specialist, Jake Pinegar, was perfect in the season opener against Appalachian State. The true freshman made his only field goal try and went 5-for-5 on extra point attempts. That performance was in a high-pressure game in front of a sold out crowd in Beaver Stadium. Pinegar had his first road test a week ago in Pittsburgh. He was kicking in unfavorable weather conditions, where it rained steadily the entire game. Even with the weather, the young kicker made all 7 extra point attempts. He did miss a 45-yard field goal attempt, but rebounded nicely knocking through the rest of the extra points on the day.
The kickoff guy, Rafael Checa, is also a true freshman. The special teams had a rough start in the first week, but bounced back nicely against Pitt. James Franklin has so much confidence in his freshman kicker that he attempted an on-side kick at the end of the first half, when the game was not going in the Nittany Lions’ favor. The kick was perfect and Parsons was able to recover it. Swinging the momentum and allowing Penn State to get more points before ending the half.
Penn State fans should be excited about where the kicking game is. James Franklin is very happy, stating, “I’ve been really pleased with the true freshman kickers, the kickoff guy and the field goal specialist.” As he should be, they both have shown resilience and poise through interesting conditions to start the 2018 season.
Penn State football’s young playmakers look to improve on an impressive early season showing this Satruday against Kent State. KJ Hamler has solidified his starting role in the passing game and will likely increase his touchdown receptions this weekend. The chemistry that he is already building with McSorley and his ability to make defenders miss will get him more targets as the season progresses. Micah Parsons will likely continue to split reps with Koa Farmer. Look for an even bigger improvement in the true freshman. Finally, there will be more wet conditions with weekend as Central Pennsylvania has seen a lot of rain the last week. Look for the kickers to be ready and Pinegar to bounce back from the miss a week ago.
Saturday’s game is a 12:00pm ET kick-off in Beaver Stadium and will be aired on FS1.