Penn State receivers coach Stan Hixon loves Allen Robinson and the terrific start the sophomore wide receiver has enjoyed this season. But he's not so sure Robinson is the best athlete the Nittany Lions have at the position.
The Penn State coaching staff is excited about Eugene Lewis' future.
"Obviously Allen can run and jump high," Hixon said after Robinson racked up 136 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the win over Navy. "But Geno … he's pretty special."
Geno is Eugene Lewis, the true freshman from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who has not yet played this season. Like many talented true freshmen on teams all over the country each fall, Lewis represents a tough decision for the coaching staff -- put him on the field now and hope his talent outweighs his freshman growing pains, or redshirt him and enjoy the rewards of having an older, and more season version of him in 2016.
But the rules are different for Penn State this fall. Six true freshmen -- quarterback Steven Bench, tight end Jesse James, defensive backs DaQuan Davis and Jordan Lucas, linebacker Nyeem Wartman and wide receiver Trevor Williams -- have already seen action. As part of the NCAA sanctions against the program, the rookies who have yet to play, including Lewis, are eligible to transfer to another school and immediately compete this season.
Penn State's coaches aren't concerning themselves with that, however. They're confident that the players who elected to stay with the team (of the Nittany Lions' 19-member Signing Day class, defensive lineman Jamil Pollard was the only player who decided to transfer) aren't going anywhere and are making decisions on who plays and who redshirts as they would under normal circumstances.
"I would say right now, going into the fourth game, it's more of a plan to try to redshirt these guys that haven't played," O'Brien said. "(Because of potential injuries) you’ve just got to these guys are ready at a moment's notice. They are. They practice that way. Some guys go back and forth between the Dirty Show (Penn State's scout team) and the first and second team practices. That's tough on them, but this is a very strong freshman class that I think has a really bright future here."
For some of the freshmen, the future is now. Bench is the No. 2 quarterback. James caught a touchdown pass last week. Williams is getting substantial reps at wideout, said Hixon, because of his route-running ability -- a part of the game that Lewis, who played mostly quarterback in high school, still has to master.
Hixon has two other true scholarship freshmen at his position -- Malik Golden and Jonathan Warner. Though the Nittany Lions might still call upon them at some point this season, he makes it a point to get across to all three freshmen the benefits of taking a redshirt.
"I tell them that come January, they're gonna be glad they did," Hixon said. "It's hard right now, but I'm just trying to get them to see the big picture. They'll be a much better player their fourth and fifth year than obviously as a freshman, when they're only going to play limited snaps."
Those snaps are even more limited at the receiver position, said Hixon, because Robinson, who is sixth in the nation in receiving yards, is playing so well.
"At times, it's hard to take Allen out of the game because he's being so productive," Hixon said. "If we go two receivers (in the formation), we've got six guys playing one position."
The other unique challenge facing O'Brien and the staff is the scholarship table. If a player redshirts in 2012, that's one less scholarship Penn State, which will be dealing with scholarship reductions for the next four years, will have available for the 2016 season, which could potentially affect offers in the next few classes.
The staff will cross those bridges when they arrive at them, O'Brien said this week. The staff will continue to make its redshirt decisions based on what's happening with the current squad.
"We think about the here and the now, what's best for the football team right now," O'Brien said. "There are certain conversations that we have that do look to the future a little bit, but not as it relates to this team here, this freshman class here right now. That doesn't have a factor in it. It's just what's best for the Penn State football team in 2012."