For the past two weeks, the scene through the heart of downtown State College hasn’t changed: Construction. Hurried students ignoring crosswalks. More construction. And the palpable, inescapable excitement that comes with the eve of a new football season.
The Nittany Lions — after a 245-day offseason — are finally ready to take the field in 2018, with everything in front of them. Trace McSorley could win the Heisman Trophy. Miles Sanders could leap out of Saquon Barkley’s shadow. James Franklin could snare his third 11-win season in a row. And Penn State could, for the first time ever, reach the College Football Playoff.
Despite legitimate question marks at linebacker, defensive tackle, tight end and elsewhere, optimism is high. And who could blame anyone for that? ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit picked Penn State to face Clemson in the national semifinal, after all. But while pundits and fans across the country look ahead to where the Nittany Lions may or may not be in December, the players aren’t getting ahead of themselves.
The leaders — the McSorleys, the Nick Scotts, the Garrett Taylors — understand what it took to resurrect a program that hovered in the middle after surviving supposedly crippling sanctions. Franklin’s first two seasons, an underwhelming 14-12, dampened the excitement felt on Jan. 11, 2014, when the up-and-coming coach was hired away from Vanderbilt. But with a senior-laden backbone, the wizardry of Joe Moorhead, a kid nicknamed Sa-Sa and hours of work behind the scenes that will never be fully appreciated, Penn State pulled itself out of the mud of mediocrity, rising again to national prominence.
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Now, it’s a matter of staying there. After a New Year’s Six bowl win, it’s time for the Nittany Lions to take that next step — and not falter in the face of change.
“I’ve been here since the 2014 days, when we were just happy to make the Pinstripe Bowl,” fifth-year senior cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “The program has come a long way, but we’re ready to put that in the past and cement something new this year and go for bigger goals.”
After capturing a Big Ten title in 2016 and beating Washington in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, there’s really only one way Penn State’s goals can get bigger this go-around: Reach the playoff.
Of course, the Nittany Lions take a week-by-week approach, which starts with Franklin and trickles down to his staff and players. Right now, Appalachian State is Penn State’s Super Bowl, Pitt will be next week, and so on and so forth. When asked about the team’s mindset for the season, redshirt junior defensive tackle Robert Windsor said, “You can talk about championships all you want, but none of that matters if we don’t win this week.” Fair enough.
But in 55 months on the job, Franklin has made it known a number of times that there is only one truly happy team at the end of the season. In 2016, it was Clemson. Last season, it was Alabama. In 2018, it could be Penn State. But the only way that will happen is if the Nittany Lions, as Oruwariye said, “cement something new” with fresh faces in crucial spots.
McSorley, arguably college football’s top quarterback, is the constant. But almost everything around him has changed. Barkley is hanging out with Odell Beckham Jr. in The Big Apple. Moorhead left for Mississippi State, and running backs coach Charles Huff went with him. Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis bolted for ‘Bama. Record-setters Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton are making a living in the NFL, as are defensive stalwarts Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Troy Apke and more. Prior to the Fiesta Bowl, Franklin called those seniors “culture drivers.”
Now they’re driving someone else’s culture, leaving it to McSorley, Scott, Ryan Bates, Cam Brown, Blake Gillikin, DeAndre Thompkins and others to set the tone.
“The older guys on the team know what it takes,” Taylor, a redshirt junior, said. “I think that’s part of the challenge; just making sure all the talented freshmen and young guys we’ve got coming in — we’ve already had 11-win seasons and stuff like that — so we have to make sure we continue to pass down that culture of hard work and making sure they know that nothing is handed to us.”
There is a sense of pride in that for Taylor and his teammates. No, Juwan Johnson didn’t start in the Big Ten title game. Middle linebacker Jan Johnson didn’t even play. In fact, six of Penn State’s starters on Saturday redshirted or weren’t on the team when the Nittany Lions beat the Badgers in 2016. Still, the new leaders appreciate what came before them. And it’s not just the players.
Ja’Juan Seider, Huff’s replacement at running backs coach, watched from West Virginia when Penn State’s potential finally materialized into production in 2016 and looked on from Gainesville as Franklin’s squad logged another 11-win season. Seider, ultimately, wanted to be a part of what’s growing in Happy Valley. He saw Penn State push toward a national title from afar and wanted to witness it first-hand.
“(Franklin) doesn’t get enough credit for how well he’s done,” Seider said. “It’s amazing how fast this program has come. I was at West Virginia recruiting against Penn State, and you just saw it. It was different. To see where we’re at now as a program, and what he’s done with his staff, it’s truly amazing. Just the culture here. I’ve never been part of a culture like this.”
Now that he is, Seider is eyeing a playoff spot. Despite a week-by-week mentality, so is Franklin and the rest of the coaching staff. So are the players and the Nittany Lion faithful.
If Penn State is to earn a spot in the final four, everything needs to go right. McSorley has to lead the team like he knows how. Ricky Rahne’s playcalling — when it really matters — must be on-point. Brent Pry’s defense has no choice but to reload, and a highly touted freshman class needs to contribute.
The question marks need answers. And the new Nittany Lions need to remain grounded in what got them to this point.
“In terms of bringing Penn State back, it feels really good, and that’s why we all came here,” Taylor said. “That expectation, that standard for us is now just that much higher, and I think we’re doing a really good job upholding that.”