UNIVERSITY PARK - Meeting the press for his first Media Day a couple of weeks ago, Penn State redshirt freshman tight end Garry Gilliam measured his words carefully, even while older teammates razzed him about his singing and guitar playing.
However, when asked about the prospect of seeing significant action in front of crowds in excess of 100,000, Gilliam, looking every bit the 6 feet, 6 inches and 263 pounds he's listed on the Nittany Lion roster, showed the confidence one would expect of a young man of that stature, answering without hesitation.
"I'm not so much nervous. I'm more anxious, just ready to get out there after sitting out for an entire year,'' Gilliam said.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Tight end Gary Gilliam (89), seen here with tackle Nate Cadogan at media day, could see a lot of time on offense this season.
Gilliam doesn't need to feel pressured, as if he was on the spot. Although the converted defensive end has been working with the first team offense throughout camp because of presumed starter Andrew Szczerba's back injury, he's not even close to being the only new face expected to play an important role on a team that includes 55 first- or second-year players and 26 others - including bigger names who have yet to see much action like Michael Mauti, Michael Yancich, Pete Massaro and Brandon Ware - with at least three years of eligibility remaining.
In fact, the starter or backup on the initial Lion depth chart had a sophomore or freshman at 17 different positions. That doesn't even include Anthony Fera at place-kicker and punter.
According to some of the upperclassmen, don't confuse a lack of playing time with a lack of ability, though.
10 to watch
Here are five redshirt freshmen and five true freshmen who could be a big part of things for the Penn State football team in 2010:
"There are guys that we've recruited that were highly touted out of high school, and they've done a lot of great things on the practice squad. They just haven't had the opportunity to make the plays on the field,'' fifth-year senior receiver Brett Brackett said. "We have all the confidence in the world in those guys.
"We've seen what they can do. It's just that the rest of the world hasn't.''
Last year, then redshirt sophomore Derek Moye burst onto the scene and wound up leading the Lions in receptions and yards per catch. Fellow wideouts Curtis Drake, Justin Brown and Devon Smith played as true freshmen, as did defensive linemen Sean Stanley and Jordan Hill and cornerback Stephon Morris.
True freshman Kevin Newsome was the backup quarterback in 2009. This year, he's being pushed by, among others, summer enrollee Robert Bolden for the starting role, news that has gotten the Lion fanbase stirring and continues to challenge the old notion that Joe Paterno never plays younger players.
"I like the team,'' Paterno said. "When I recruit kids, I tell them, 'Hey, don't be afraid of competition. If you're afraid of competition, don't even look at us because you'll never get good if you don't play against good people and you'll never get good if you don't practice against good people.'
" Now whether we're going to be good enough, you know, that's what it's all about.''
"I'll probably get the majority of my time on special teams this year, but, right now, I'm right there, so, if anything happens, in one play, I could be playing,'' second-team safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a redshirt frosh, said, "just like a lot of other freshmen. If I get the opportunity, I'm ready.''
There are a lot of candidates to be this year's Moye, Morris or Stanley.
"Freshman-wise, I like Silas Redd and Robert Bolden,'' running back Stephfon Green said. "As a redshirt freshman, I like Shawney Kersey and Derrick Thomas.''
Kersey already showed his stuff at the Blue-White Game, hauling in a pair of 18-yard touchdown passes from fellow freshman Paul Jones. Redd, too, opened eyes that day by breaking off a 16-yard run and catching a pass for 10 yards.
Much like Jones, Redd, a January enrollee tailback from Connecticut, is a likely candidate to redshirt this year simply because there are several established players at his position - in Redd's case, Green, Evan Royster and improving 6-1, 237-pound redshirt frosh physical phenom Curtis Dukes, who rushed for 31 yards in the Blue-White Game - and it doesn't make sense to burn a year's eligibility without getting him on the field much. Redd has made quite an impression on his competition for playing time, though.
"He's eager to learn,'' Green said of Redd, who is said to be stuck off the field to the hip of Royster, likely to become the Lions' all-time leading rusher this year. "He doesn't act like he knows everything. He just wants to learn. He wants to understand. It's great when you have a young kid like who you just want to take under your wing and just teach them everything that you've been taught. At the same time, a lot of those [younger] guys have just been making plays and doing real good.''
Besides quarterback, the impact of the newcomers figures to be felt the most is at two positions that go up against each other every day - receiver and defensive back.
"Practice is very interesting now, because all the fastest receivers are in our class,'' Thomas, who is in the mix to be the Lions' nickel corner, said. "We like to go back and forth and argue about who won this battle or who won that battle after practice.''
Thomas, Obeng-Agyapong and corner Mike Wallace - all redshirt freshmen - are anticipated to join Morris in seeing key action in the secondary.
"It's pretty fun working with all these young guys,'' Obeng-Agyapong said. "We all have the same energy we all understand where each other's coming from.''
State College's Alex Kenney was ticketed to join them, but Drake's broken leg convinced the coaches to move the state medalist sprinter to receiver for the time being, adding to a unit that already has a potential impact newcomer in Kersey. He also could be a threat on returns.
"He's really fast,'' quarterback Shane McGregor said with wide eyes.
Gilliam also could be a threat in the passing game.
"He's got a lot to learn, playing tight end, where he's never really played at the collegiate level. But, at the same time, he's taking advantage of all the time in the weight room, in the locker room, watching film and practicing,'' receiver Graham Zug said. "He's athletic. He's a good, strong kid, and he knows how to play football.''
In addition, true freshman Kevin Haplea has been said to be looking good at tight end, and he might offer more as a blocker at this point than does Gilliam if Szczerba isn't ready to go.
"The opportunity is there. We've got to take it,'' Gilliam said. "At first, it's a little unsettling, getting throw into the number one spot, but, over the summer and over the camp, I've gotten over that.''
Although Gilliam's receiving is his strength at this point, he's taking nothing for granted.
"We're playing young quarterbacks, and young quarterbacks' favorite receivera seems to be the tight end on the under routes,'' Gilliam said. "I've just been trying to sharpen up on my routes, make sure they're crisp and give them a target to throw to.''
Of course, with all the potential impact youngsters on the team, quarterback has gotten the majority of the attention because of blue-chip recruits Jones and Bolden coming in and joining Newsome. It seemed apparent on Media Day that the other players were coached to keep a tight lip about the quarterback competition, but occasional strong praise about Bolden got out.
"I don't know what it is. I just see something in Robert's eyes that I think he's going to be really good here,'' Green said.
Ready or not, it's clear that this crop of newcomers is being to be looked at to contribute.
"All it takes is them being on the field and getting an opportunity to make those plays,'' Brackett said. "We've seen them make those plays in practice. We've seen them do what they need to do. Now it comes down to doing it on the field. I'm excited and anxious for them to get on the field.
"They have a lot of potential, and it's going to be a very exciting team if it all comes together.''