James Franklin could see it right away, from the time the first six freshmen in Penn State's Class of 2018 arrived on campus after enrolling in January. He saw it again during the first and second summer sessions and knew that he had a special group.
"I think this freshman class is really advanced," the Nittany Lions' head coach said earlier this month. "I just think in general, this freshman class, they're much more aggressive, they're much more competitive. That's not a knock on other classes. Most times, these freshman classes come in and they've got to feel it out first.
"These guys are coming in … some in mid-semester, probably more guys at summer (session) one, all those factor in. A large percentage of them are competing at a pretty high level. So I've been very pleased with the freshman class, their mentality, their approach, their body types, their athleticism. I've been very impressed."
With two of the 2018 signees, offensive lineman Nanu Asiedu and defensive back Jordan Miner, having to retire from the team because of heart issues, the freshman class in training camp totaled 21. Nine of them are on the depth chart for Saturday's season opener against Appalachian State, including both starting kickers – field-goal specialist Jake Pinegar and kickoff man Rafael Checa.
Franklin spoke Tuesday about the different traits of the freshmen, reminding everyone that they are, for the most part, 18 years old.
"Some of them are very mature," he said. "Some of them are very immature. Some of them are silly. Some of them have put a major emphasis on academics early in their career because that's the family they came from. Some of them have a wakeup call and understand how important their education is after they get here and show up for a little bit of time.
"There's a journey. That's kind of our entire freshman class. What's nice is that I think they all complement each other very well. I think there's tremendous leadership in that group."
Two of the most obvious leaders are linebackers Micah Parsons and Jesse Luketa, both 19, both of whom arrived on campus in January.
Parsons was one of the most highly recruited high school players in the 2018 class, having committed early to Penn State and then decommitting before sticking with the program for good. Luketa left his home in Ottawa, Ont., and played for three seasons at Mercyhurst Prep in Pennsylvania.
"I think Micah is a great example of the entire class," Franklin said. "There's times that he's really mature. There's times where he's immature. There's times where he's done really well academically. There's times when he missed a class when he shouldn't have. But we put out a graphic the other day and Micah's one of the guys on it; he has done extremely well academically this spring and summer."
Junior linebacker Cam Brown, who played mostly on special teams as a true freshman, said he is impressed with the ability of both Parsons and Luketa to play right away on defense.
"The fact that they came in with such strength as a freshman, I can't really say I did the same thing," Brown said. "Their weight, they're coming in heavy at 230-240, I think that gives them a big advantage."
No one knows for sure how much Franklin will play the true freshmen on Saturday but he is pleased with the progress they have made both on and off the field.