Which Penn State freshmen could be green lit in 2022?
When the NCAA changed it rules in 2018, allowing college football players to play in up to four games and still maintain redshirt status, Penn State also changed its approach to how it handled, and labeled, its incoming freshman.
Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin has likened the situation to that of stoplight, with players receiving green, yellow and red light labels with regards to redshirt status. Players labeled as green lights are expected to play early and often, forgoing a redshirt year. Those labeled as yellow will also see the field, though more sparingly, and their redshirt status will be determined throughout the course of the season. Players who are red lit may see some time late in the season in mop up situations, but will almost assuredly be redshirted and may not see any game time.
With that said, we'll take a look at Penn State's 23 early signees for the class of 2022 and assess whether they're likely to receive green, yellow or red light status headed into their freshman seasons.
Drew Allar - Red Light
Beau Pribula - Red Light
This, more than perhaps any other prediction, is the one most likely to aggravate Penn State fans. Drew Allar is, without question, the most physically gifted signal caller in the Penn State quarterback room right now and if handled correctly, the future of the position. But with Sean Clifford returning and Christian Veilleux likely starting the season as the primary backup, it's hard to envision any situation, barring injuries, where Allar doesn't redshirt. Similarly, Pribula is a talented athlete who may be the more accurate of the freshmen quarterbacks, but it would take a doomsday scenario for him not to redshirt in 20222.
Nick Singleton - Green Light
Kaytron Allen - Yellow Light
A lot of what happens at the running back position will be determined over the course of spring and summer practices. Right now, the Nittany Lions have five backs competing for playing time, while only three are likely to see the field regularly. Keyvone Lee, health permitting, seems locked into one of those spots. So that leaves two spots for Singleton, Allen, Caziah Holmes and Devyn Ford. Singleton, for my money, is the most talented and well-rounded back in the room, while Allen brings a downhill style that Penn State badly missed in 2021. I'd be surprised if the former didn't play early and often in 2022, while the latter could the field as well depending on how things shake out between now and September.
Kaden Saunders - Green Light
Anthony Ivey - Red Light
Omari Evans - Red Light
Tyler Johnson - Red Light
Saunders comes to State College as an early enrollee with the hands, polish and game-breaking ability that makes him someone likely to play right away for the Nittany Lions. Not only should he see the field at wide receiver, he could also factor in on kick and punt returns.
The other three are each at different points in their development. Ivey and Evans are elite athletes who could use work fine tuning the details of the wide receiver position, while Johnson could play but will likely be kept in redshirt due to the depth that Penn State has at the wide receiver position with Parker Washington, KeAndre Lamber-Smith, Malick Meiga, Mitchell Tinsey, Tre Wallace, Liam Clifford and Saunders all likely in the mix ahead of him.
Jerry Cross - Red Light
Cross comes to Penn State having been limited by injury and COVID shutdowns in the last two years of his high school career. While he's got the requisite size at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, he'll likely have to reshape his body a little bit and clean up parts of his game, particularly route running and blocking. Those requirements, combined with a relatively deep tight end room, mean Cross is unlikely to see the field in 2022.
JB Nelson - Yellow Light
Drew Shelton - Red Light
Maleek McNeil - Red Light
Nelson is very clearly the one to keep an eye on here for a number of reasons. First, he arrived to campus in January as an early enrollee. Second, he comes from the junior college ranks and is a bit more physically mature than the other two. Plus, he could play either guard or right tackle for Penn State. He recently dropped about 15 pounds and now stands at 6-5, 300 and there's a good chance he gets back to 310ish with Penn State's strength program. Depending on how the transfer portal shakes out, Nelson could be one to watch at right tackle in 2022.
Shelton comes into the program with fantastic upside and probably as the prospect with the best balance of polish and potential, but he'll need to gain weight and experience before seeing the field. McNeil, meanwhile, is a mountain of a man at 6-8, 340, but is probably at least two years away from seeing meaningful playing time from a technique perspective. If Phil Trautwein can get him right, McNeil's size and impressively quick feet make his upside limitless.
Dani Dennis-Sutton - Green Light
Ken Talley - Red Light
Dennis-Sutton has long been a five-star on Rivals and showed just why with a dominant showing all week at the Under Armour All-America game. There's a good chance he moves into the top 10 of the next rankings update. Dennis-Sutton has all the size, skill and athleticism to play from the get go for Penn State and it would be stunning if he didn't do so.
Talley is an interesting case. He played as an undersized defensive end for most of his high school career and has a good motor. He's since added weight and is listed a 6-2, 243. If he can maintain that weight while keeping his motor and working on his first step, the Nittany Lions could have a solid rotational pass rusher, but it'll take some work from the staff.
Kaleb Artis - Red Light
Zane Durant - Red Light
Artis has good size, at 6-4, 290, but needs to work on his technique and is taking a huge step up in competition from New York high school football. Durant, meanwhile, has fantastic technique and motor to match, but needs to add around 30 pounds to his 6-1, 260-pound frame. Both would be surprising if they didn't redshirt in 2022. Defensive tackle is also an area where Penn State has solid depth with PJ Mustipher, Coziah Izzard, D'Von Ellies, Jordan Van den Berg and Fatorma Mulbah all competing for time, while Hakeem Beamon could be back in that mix as well.
Abdul Carter - Yellow Light
Keon Wylie - Yellow Light
Penn State is in a weird spot here, at least until or unless they bring in someone from the transfer portal. Curtis Jacobs is a locked on starter, but the other two spots are up for grabs. True freshmen Kobe King and Jamari Buddin impressed in limited action in 2021, while veterans Tyler Elsdon, Charlie Katshir and Jon Sutherland will all have their say. But none of the five behind Jacobs have done anything to nail down a spot.
Carter comes in a bit raw, but at 6-3, 230 pounds and with great speed and agility, he has the physical tools to come in and play fairly quickly. Not enrolling early may hurt that cause, however. Similarly, Wylie is a great athlete at 6-2, 210, but is making the change from defensive end to linebacker and could use some time to learn the position. I could see both, like King and Buddin in 2021, playing in up to four games but not burning their redshirt statuses.
Cam Miller - Yellow Light
Tyrece Mills - Yellow Light
KJ Winston - Yellow Light
Mehki Flowers - Red Light
Cristian Driver - Red Light
Penn State's depth at cornerback and relative lack of depth at safety makes this a bit of a guessing game. Miller played all over in high school, but is expected to play corner for the Nittany Lions and, on signing day, Terry Smith told media he expects him to come in and compete for playing time right away.
Mills is not yet signed, but all indications continue to be that he will do so in February. Not getting on campus early hurts the Lackawanna College product as a dearth of safeties makes him a likely candidate to play next year. There are, however, worries over whether he has the speed to stick at safety long-term or whether he ends up at linebacker. With Manny Diaz's propensity to play a 4-2-5, it may not matter.
Winston is another player who is still sort of learning his position, but benefits from the lack of safety depth. He's an elite athlete with a nose for the football who I'm immensely high on, though it may be a couple years until he really begins to break through.
Both Flowers and Driver are making position switches from wide receiver, though the former played a lot of safety as well in high school. Flowers has a long stride and ball skills that make him a particularly exciting safety prospect, while Driver's football pedigree means he's got a great mind for the game and should be able to pick up the nuances of the position a bit more quickly.
Alex Bacchetta - Green Light
Now, I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on punting, but if you can boot the heck out of the ball in high school I'd imagine you can continue to do so in college? With Jordan Stout headed to the NFL, Penn State is in desperate need of a starting punter in 2022 and Bacchetta is considered one of the best in the nation at the high school level. He should be given every opportunity to win the spot over the summer.