UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Thursday mornings during the season, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and his staff meet for a discussion that mashes up freshmen football players with the basic concepts of traffic etiquette.
"We look at where we're at injury-wise and those kinds of things and talk about guys that have the red light, the green light or the yellow light," O'Brien said.
In three games so far, a handful of freshmen have played for Penn State, quarterback Christian Hackenberg being the most prominent. Others who have played are linebacker Brandon Bell, defensive backs Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith, tight end Adam Breneman, wide receiver Richy Anderson, returner Von Walker and Gregg Garrity on special teams.
They are part of the coaching staff's tough decisions to make as they try to best shape a thin roster in these years of the NCAA sanctions. They've essentially been given the green light.
At those meetings, green light means the staff is prepared to use a player in the game. A yellow light means a specific freshman could play if a number of other players are injured. A red light means the freshman won't play no matter what.
Compared to last year, the staff has assigned more green lights. The only freshmen who played last season were defensive backs Trevor Williams, Jordan Lucas and Da'Quan Davis and tight end Jesse James (linebacker Nyeem Wartman played in two games but then received a medical redshirt).
Among this year's freshmen, Hackenberg is a starter and Walker returns punts. Bell, Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith have played sparingly on defense, same with Breneman and Anderson on offense. O'Brien said Tuesday he doubts any other freshmen will play this season on offense or defense.
In three games, Hackenberg has thrown for 851 yards and his passing efficiency rating of 157.3 places him 30th in the nation in that category. Anderson has caught four passes for 34 yards. Breneman has yet to pick up a reception but has blocked in many situations.
On defense, Bell has two tackles and Anthony Smith has one. Walker has one tackle on special teams, 22 punt return yards and 56 kick return yards.
While some of those freshmen have excelled, the decision to play them is, to an extent, a matter of necessity because of Penn State's lack of scholarship players.
"You would love to redshirt everybody because I do think it's hard to play as a young kid in any college program, especially closer to the ball," O'Brien said earlier this year.
"We have to play the best players because we have to do what's best for the team and program."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published September 20, 2013 4:00 AM