Admittedly, Penn State coach James Franklin was a bit concerned heading into December’s Big Ten Championship game for one particular reason: Wisconsin was making its fourth conference title game appearance in six years.
“A bunch of players on their roster had played on that stage and in that setting and in that type of game,” Franklin said at Tuesday’s spring practice press conference. “We had nobody.”
Well, that has since changed.
Spring practice starts Wednesday for the Nittany Lions, Franklin’s fourth at the helm, and after an 11-3 season featuring a Big Ten title and trip to the Rose Bowl, Penn State has plenty of experience to build on.
Now, the Nittany Lions are forging ahead, using a reminder-filled camp as a springboard into similar success in 2017.
“We’ve got to take those experiences from last year — the Big Ten Championship game, the Ohio State game, the bowl game — and learn from them and grow from them,” Franklin said. “We have to make sure we’re still the same humble, hungry, hard-working team that focuses on preparation and not lose that. Not lose our identity, what made us special.”
Bottling up that magic isn’t a simple feat, and Franklin understands that. It’s still March, and there’s plenty of work to be done before Penn State opens its season on Sept. 2 against Akron.
So, how do the Nittany Lions plan on repeating last year’s growth during this season’s spring ball? Fundamentals, development and trust.
Or as Franklin put it, “Don’t try to put the cart ahead of the horse.”
“It’s all about building mental physical toughness. It’s about pushing guys out of their comfort zone and speeding up their maturation process,” Franklin added. “Instead of waiting for a guy to grow up, you’re forcing it to happen quickly. ... That’s important now more than ever.”
Especially as the Nittany Lions face a 2017 schedule filled with landmines. Road games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa, and home matchups against Michigan and Nebraska make for a grueling conference slate.
That, combined with lofty expectations, creates a challenge to post repeat successful seasons. In player meetings, individual and group sessions alike, Franklin and his staff have tried to get that through their players’ heads.
The Nittany Lions can’t act like 2016 didn’t happen, and they can’t try to ignore the hype. But, in Franklin’s eyes, continuing last season’s progress will depend on whether or not Penn State can avoid complacency — and that starts Wednesday when spring practice gets underway.
“We have to realize none of the points from last year are going to carry over. None of the sacks are going to carry over. None of the wins are going to carry over. We’ve got to re-create this team,” Franklin said. “There are some lessons we learned, and there’s a foundation. But we have to re-create this team from the ground up.”