The theme of Thursday’s Penn State football media day was clear.
This team has a lot to prove, and they’re frothing at the mouth to get onto a field and prove it.
Head coach James Franklin, for example, was just 15 minutes into his media session before mentioning “the chip.”
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As in, the chip on all of his players’ shoulders after an offseason of scrutiny and critique, both internal and external, and the one Franklin says he’s had since his “mom had him.”
“I think we have a bunch of prideful, passionate guys that have come to Penn State to do something special,” he said. “And I think we’re going to have that chip on our shoulder until we get where we want to go.”
The “chip” was mentioned at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last week by Franklin and his trio of seniors in attendance, and echoed in the voices of many more in Beaver Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
“I think you always got to have a chip on your shoulder,” said offensive coordinator John Donovan. “But it just won’t happen by thinking about it. You’ve got to get up and attack that day and do the best you can that day, you go to bed, you learn from it and you do the same thing the next day.”
Where does the “chip” come from?
An offseason spent in critique and scrutiny, in self-evaluation and outside evaluation, both positively-constructed and not, is the likely culprit, and is both frustrating and motivating.
The most common of these dissections were in regard to Penn State’s offensive line, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
In Chicago, Franklin said he wanted quarterback Hackenberg to “have some fun” and “be who he is” this season.
But when Hackenberg took the podium Thursday, he did so wearing his No. 14 jersey, a blue Penn State baseball cap pulled low over his brow, and no smile.
He opened his session by addressing the media quietly, while looking down at a written statement in his hand.
“I respect that all of you guys have a job to do,” he said, from underneath the brim of his hat. “I also have a job to do, and that is to lead this Penn State football team.
“That being said, I would ask for you to respect the job I have to do, and please refrain from asking any questions regarding my future beyond this season. I am strictly focused on making this Penn State football team the best team they can be.”
Hackenberg is eligible for the 2016 NFL Draft and a flurry of dialogue came in the offseason of his No. 1 pick projection in Todd McShay’s mock draft.
The junior, who will finally be in the same system for two straight years and was announced Thursday as a returning captain, is focused on the coming weeks.
“Camp’s a great opportunity to see what we’re all about this year,” he said.
An opportunity to get back on the turf couldn’t come soon enough. Players and coaches alike are anxious to dig their cleats into the ground and get to work. They’ve had just about enough talking.
“I’d run the ball if they asked me to,” said offensive lineman and graduate transfer Kevin Reihner, who was not at Penn State for the Blue-White game and has now taken the biggest break from playing football he’s had since he was in high school.
“I’ve got the same sentiment,” said offensive line coach Herb Hand, of the universal desire to put action where words have been this offseason. “I’m a part of that unit. And we all have something to prove.”
Added Franklin, “There’s nothing worse on offense every single off season than watching a turnover tape or watching a sack tape.
“I think you spend so much in the off season focused on areas that you think you should be stronger in and areas that you need to improve that it just kind of gnaws at you after a while, and then there comes a point you just want to get out on the field and start playing. After a couple weeks at camp we’ll get to the point where we’re ready to play an opponent.”
There will now be position battles to decide -- Who will be the go-to tight end between Adam Breneman, Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki? Which young running back will step up to complement the versatility of Akeel Lynch? Who gets the open spot at left tackle, Chance Sorrell or Paris Palmer? -- but these decisions come from performance on the field and away from the cameras.
Even the music pouring over the fence just before media was let into practice on Thursday afternoon seemed to quantify the volume of excitement of the team to be back at work -- The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” blared just before Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” with backing vocals provided by the shrieks of whistles and hollered drill instruction.
A short time later, the lights at Lasch came on. Brief flashes of simple white helmets peeked over the fence next to Hastings road. There’s nothing written on the helmets, of course, but the message was clear.
Football is back.