Penn State Football: 4 Nittany Lions Freshmen Who Will Play Big Roles in 2012

Derek Gerberich@@thexsportsxguyCorrespondent IJune 12, 2012

Penn State Football: 4 Nittany Lions Freshmen Who Will Play Big Roles in 2012

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    With only one freshman deciding to opt for early-entry spring ball, the bulk of Penn State's 2012 recruiting class arrives this summer.

    Bill O'Brien will be preparing for his first season as Nittany Lions head coach and will be seeking contributions from the freshman class to put Penn State in position for a Big Ten title run.

    What follows is a preview of four freshman who could become factors in 2012.

1. Eugene Lewis (WR)

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    The 6'2", 180-pound wide receiver out of Plymouth, PA figures to compete for the third wide receiver spot with Allen Robinson and Shawney Kersey—to see who will join the corps of Justin Brown and Devon Smith.

    One of Penn State's prized recruits of 2012, Lewis threw for 1,032 yards and ran for an additional 1,534 over 11 games during his senior season. 

    That made Lewis one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the state of PA, but what speaks to his talent level is that he is playing in this weekend's Big 33 game—as a wide receiver. ranks Lewis as a 4-star recruit and the No. 4 overall player in the state of Pennsylvania. He drew an impressive list of offers from teams like Wisconsin, Oregon and Virginia Tech—just to name a few.

    Lewis should give quarterback Matt McGloin one additional offensive weapon, as he brings 4.5 40-yard dash speed to go along with his 6'2" frame.

2. Brian Gaia (DT)

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    Brian Gaia, the 6'3", 290-pound defensive tackle resembles a prototypical lineman that is essential for successful Big Ten play.

    Like Lewis, Gaia also drew interest from an impressive list of schools, namely West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Iowa and Rutgers.

    While Gaia is listed as both an offensive and defensive lineman, he was brought in by Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, and it looks like that is where he will be used.

    Gaia is coming off of his second consecutive All-State season for the Gilman Greyhounds in Maryland, and he has impressed scouts with his ability to shed blockers.

    If he pushes for playing time in the fall, his ability to take on numerous blockers could provide opportunities for hard-hitting outside linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti to bring the thunder.

3. Brent Wilkerson (DE)

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    The 6'4", 245-pound Wilkerson showed the ability to play both sides of the ball during his high school career, excelling at both tight end and defensive end.

    His 4.9 in the 40-yard dash caught my attention, as he was brought in by defensive line coach Larry Johnson—most certainly to develop as a threatening pass-rusher.

    Wilkerson has room to grow in his 6'4" frame, and if he does that, I will be keeping a close eye on how he affects the competition for starting left end.

4. Jesse James (TE)

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    Bill O'Brien seems to know a thing or two about using tight ends effectively (see: Gronkowski, Rob and Hernandez, Aaron).

    Gronkowski, who just became the richest tight end in the NFL, measures 6'6" and weighs 265 pounds.  He runs a solid 4.65 in the 40-yard dash.

    Jesse James, Penn State's top tight end recruit, measures 6'7", weighs 265 pounds and was clocked at 4.70 in the 40-yard dash.

    Granted, he's no Gronk—just yet. But the measurements are pretty darn close.

    When you take into account that he was the only freshman who made the early-entry plunge to Happy Valley in the spring and that he's already taken the No. 2 spot on the depth chart at tight end, it tells me that O'Brien likes what he sees.

    By the time fall rolls around in State College, I think Nittany Lions fans will, too.