Penn State’s seniors are unique.
A total of 23 departing Lions will be honored before Penn State takes on Nebraska at 4 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium. A combined 382 starts will be moving on. Yes, 382.
When the names are announced off and they walk out of the tunnel — Marcus Allen, Jason Cabinda, Christian Campbell, Mike Gesicki, Grant Haley, DaeSean Hamilton, the list goes on — there’ll be tears shed and heads shaking. Beaver Stadium fans, while cheering and sending them off properly, will wonder: How are these guys going to be replaced?
That’ll be the question all offseason — but in the meantime, it can be saved for later. For Penn State and for head coach James Franklin, Saturday is about celebrating the past and savoring the present.
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“It’s hard,” Franklin said. “Senior Day is an exciting time for those guys, because it kind of starts to get them in the mode of thinking about the next step in their life and the natural progression that happens through a football program. These guys are part of our family. They’re part of the locker room. But it’s more than that. You get to know these guys on a very personal level. You experience highs; you experience lows. They’re there for you; you’re there for them. My daughters, Addy and Shola, these guys are like big brothers to them.
“To be honest with you, it’s not enough time. Because right when you start to get to know each other on a significant level, they’re leaving and they’re moving on. So it’s hard; it’s emotional.”
In appreciating this senior class, the diehard Penn State fan and casual college football watcher alike have to put their entrance to the program in perspective.
Bill O’Brien — who recruited guys like Allen, Gesicki and Hamilton — left Happy Valley for the NFL a month before National Signing Day. The news broke on New Year’s Eve that he’d become the Houston Texans’ new coach.
Allen and running back Mark Allen were “having fun at a hotel party” when they got word of O’Brien’s departure.
“We just stopped having fun,” the safety said. “That’s when we were asking (O’Brien) what was going on and he didn’t say anything. Like 20 minutes later I got the call from Coach O’Brien. I went out into the hallway and left the party.”
But Allen — and Gesicki and others — didn’t leave the Nittany Lions. They stayed committed despite not knowing who would be the next coach.
Well, Franklin was hired a couple weeks later, flipped Vanderbilt commits like Haley and Trace McSorley and that was that.
The situation was a bit weird. Marcus’ father, Shawn, called it a “shotgun wedding,” while Franklin said Wednesday it was “a mad scramble” to keep the class together.
“These guys came at a time that was a challenging time for all of us at Penn State,” Franklin said, referring to the fact the program was still saddled with scholarship limitations and two more years of a bowl ban. “These guys believed in Penn State. They believed in this community. They believed in our professors and our faculty and the deans, the administration. They believed in our coaching staff. They believed in their teammates and felt like we could do something special here.”
All things considered, that’s what happened. The senior class’ fingerprints are all over Penn State’s recent success.
Marcus Allen and Haley combined on the program’s biggest play in decades. Gesicki helped elevate a high-flying offense. Cabinda guided the defense for years. Hamilton is Penn State’s all-time receptions leader. Saeed Blacknall caught a pair of monumental touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship game.
Penn State is staring at back-to-back double-digit win seasons, thanks in large part to a group of seniors that stuck together from the get-go.
On the first day or two on campus, Cabinda recalled everyone in the class — from Haley to Troy Apke — walking from the seventh floor of Beaver Hall down Shortlidge Road to Baby’s Burgers and Shakes.
“The first time we went, we were like, ‘Damn, this is really home for the next four years,’” Cabinda said. “It was surreal.”
Saturday’s going to be surreal experience, too.
Some senior classes come and go without much attention. But in terms of impact, this one’s different.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Gesicki said. “It’s going to be something that I’m going to cherish for a long time. So I’m excited for Saturday, but obviously don’t want it to come too fast because I know once it starts it’s going to end pretty quick.”