Freshmen on fire: How good can Penn State really become?
The Penn State Nittany Lions have plenty of growing up to do over the next three weeks.
Which just may be the best part about them.
You could make a case that Penn State's three most intriguing peformers in beating the Auburn Tigers were freshmen tailback Nick Singleton and linebacker Abdul Carter and true sophomore defensive end Chop Robinson.
They were helped by rookies Dani Dennis-Sutton and Kaytron Allen and backup QB Drew Allar and ...
The list goes on in ways we haven't seen since James Franklin took over in 2014. Even before that.
Many of the youngest players on this 3-0 team are quickly showing out as the most talented and even productive, which is providing more than promise for the near-future. It's energizing this team after back-to-back disappointing seasons.
It's doing this, too: Giving a foundation to get better as the season goes, which sounds simple but has proved elusive, more often than not.
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They own some of the same possibilities as that 2016 team that wasn't quite this young in star positions but was unproven and grew into itself along the way.
Some striking similarities, too, to the 2005 team that also was unranked after two subpar seasons and relied on squadron of freshmen to boost confidence, then productivity, and then a winner's swagger.
The vets ultimately steered both of those teams (Brandon Bell, Marcus Allen, Chris Godwin in 2016; Michael Robinson, Paul Posluszny and Alan Zemaitis in '05).
But where would they have been without some of the most dazzling freshmen and sophomores the program has known?
Of course, Franklin's most talented and deepest team yet at Penn State is still figuring things out. It will now entertain two overmatched opponents in Beaver Stadium, then get a bye − before their national judgment at Michigan.
There's no reason to believe, though, they won't keep improving after crushing Auburn on the road, 41-12.
See the proof? Singleton, with limited work, already has five runs of 40 or more yards. He sprinted past Auburn's SEC-talent defense as if it was something from the Mid-American Conference. He owns more big runs than anyone in the nation right now and has made it look relatively easy.
His tailback partner, Allen, worked inside lanes with power and vision of a more seasoned runner.
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Franklin was asked about those two after the Auburn game but could have been talking about any of these prodigous youngsters:
“No, I have not seen two (rookies) have this type of success. We were pretty excited once they got on campus. Because recruiting is wonderful, but you never truly know until they show up on campus.
“They kind of have a complementary style. But they both make plays. I think Kaytron has really good vision, and he makes a 4-yard run into a 12- or 16-yard run on a consistent basis. And then, as we know, Nick has the ability to go 80.”
The tailbacks are just the starting point.
Because Carter flies at ballcarriers like artillery fire.
Zakee Wheatley, a redshirt freshman, has a nose for the ball, producing two more turnovers after leading the defense in takeways during preseason camp.
Allar looks like he's ready to take over a moment's notice, if something should happen to neutralize their leader, Sean Clifford.
For now, the sixth-year quarterback has proven every bit as tough and inspiring as they come. The wicked hit to his legs and those cramps at Purdue? He rallied to lead the game-winning drive. That vicious shot to his head early at Auburn, the ball flying, his body crumpling?
He simply popped up, ran a QB sneak on the next play and, before you know it, was leading a touchdown drive that instilled confidence and control.
Small moments of toughness and resolve, that when looking back, may mean more than believed.
Like rookie receiver Jordan Norwood taking a similar brutal hit while cradling a pass early at Northwestern in '05. Who's that kid? You kind of knew then for that team on that season-changing day.
It was the same for sophomore QB Trace McSorley through 2016, from getting blasted after a long completion and hobbling down the field at Indiana to being steamrolled early by Wisconsin defenders like T.J. Watt in the Big Ten title game.
He stayed strong, like those others, punched back and gave their teams reason to believe.
This Penn State team owns expanding possibilities like those others in the same feel-good, rejuvenating kind of ways.
As in you don't really know yet how good they can truly be. But that it's riveting to watch and find out.
Another Singleton breakaway, another Allen touchdown, another Wheatley turnover.
Snapshots of a team building ... getting better by the week?
Something you haven't felt in years.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.