Penn State's politics of redshirting

Editor's note: Ivan Maisel has the latest from Penn State as the Nittany Lions prepare for their season opener versus Ohio.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- In the staff meeting on the day before the season opener, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien went around the table, coach by coach, to discuss the Nittany Lions' freshmen. The topic: to redshirt or not to redshirt.

There is the obvious reason for having the discussion -- once a freshman enters a game, that year of eligibility is used. At Penn State, with the NCAA sanctions limiting the team to 65 scholarship players beginning next season, roster management is never far below the surface.

But the coaches also must deal with the expectations of a freshman and his family. O'Brien conducted the discussion in part so that every coach would know the status of every freshman. Parents have been known to call, sometimes with ideas that differ from the plans of the coaches.

"They want to play," wide receiver coach Stan Hixon said. "They think they want to play. Then they get out there."

When O'Brien came around the table to Hixon, the head coach said, "Trevor Williams is going to play. I told Malik Golden we're going to redshirt him. We're trying to redshirt Geno Lewis."

Hixon: "I talked to his Dad yesterday."

O'Brien: "What is he thinking?"

Hixon: He's fine. He said, ‘Coach, whatever you think is best.'"

Here was the discussion regarding safety Jordan Lucas, a 6-foot-0, 188-pound first-year player from New Rochelle, N.Y.

"Lucas will play only on special teams," secondary coach John Butler said.

"He will not redshirt?" O'Brien asked.

"He will not redshirt and he will not play [defense]," Butler replied. Then, to clarify, he said, "He's not in the game plan."

There's a distinction there. Any plan to redshirt a freshman will remain in effect only as long as the players ahead of him remain healthy. Injuries will rip a redshirt off a freshman in the blink of a play. O'Brien wants to redshirt the linemen on both sides of the ball. He doesn't want to use quarterback Steven Bench. But that's a luxury in which he can indulge only if starter Matt McGloin remains healthy and productive.

"I tell my guys, 'we're not planning on playing you,'" Hixon said, "'but be ready. Just in case.'"

And sometimes, in the heat of the sideline moment, even the best coach will move to send a freshman in without thinking. College Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Ken Margerum of Stanford got sent into the last game of the 1977 season. The coach who made that decision? Bill Walsh.

Walsh may have won three Super Bowls, but that's not a road that Hixon wants to go down. He said he always tells his freshmen receivers, "If I say go in, say, ‘Are you sure, Coach?'"