In many ways, it was a feeling of relief.
After champing at the bit for weeks, after informal workouts and get-togethers on the field and off, the Nittany Lion football team could finally, officially gather for a practice.
But the relief extended beyond the stretch of green grass behind the Lasch Building.
The clouds that have hung over Happy Valley the past three-plus years have all but parted.
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The sanctions no longer linger. There are no more limits on the number of scholarships the program can offer — beyond the same requirements for every other Division I program — and they know a bowl game is in the offing if they do well.
There is also relief that almost all the questions posed to head coach James Franklin, his staff and members of the team were almost universally about football at their annual Media Day on Thursday.
It was all about football.
“It’s really relieving to have a clean slate this year,” senior defensive end Carl Nassib said. “It’s really nice when people talk about Penn State football, and not all the stuff on the sidelines … not all the stuff off the field.”
Franklin’s session with the media lasted close to 40 minutes, and there was just one question about recovering from the past.
There were more questions about the team’s kickers than there were about NCAA sanctions. It was definitely a relief.
“I think there are so many positive things falling into place for Penn State right now, and we’ve got momentum, and we have to capitalize on that momentum,” Franklin said, whose program got a reprieve from the bowl ban and scholarship limitations soon after last season began. “I don’t think there’s any doubt. You think about last year, there were so many unknowns sitting in this press conference talking to you guys. We weren’t able to go to a bowl game last year when the season started. We got that opportunity back. We weren’t able to have a full 85 scholarships. I think we were limited to 65. We have the opportunity now to get as close to 85 as we can.”
The feeling also extends to those on the field.
It comes from the continuity in the program. Instead of wholesale changes, with an entirely new coaching staff, the Nittany Lions instead have familiarity. The players know what their coaches want and expect, they know the playbook better, and the coaches know the young men better.
For the team’s fifth-year seniors, they have gone from learning Joe Paterno’s systems to Bill O’Brien’s and then to Franklin’s. Plus, there were two defensive coordinators during O’Brien’s tenure. The coaches who finished last season helping the Nittany Lions beat Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium were the same guys blowing the whistles at Thursday’s practice.
“It’s night and day,” Franklin said. “It’s compounded because it’s not just the coaches and the different styles of the coaches and the recruits. It’s also just everything we’ve been through in the last three to four years. I think it’s a combination of all those things. There are effects. There are effects to those things. There are wounds from those things.”
Now there is stability. They can breathe.
“Year two’s always a year to see some jumps in a lot of areas,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “… We’re working as hard as we can to make sure that is the case. I know ultimately what you’re asking me if we feel a lot more comfortable about it. We definitely do.”
The feeling extends to the recruiting trail as well.
The Nittany Lions are starting to score some of the nation’s top prospects. The freshman class of 2016 is rated seventh in the nation, and second in the Big Ten, by 247Sports. Rivals.com has Penn State 10th in the nation, and other services have similar views.
The Penn State football program has found its way through the darkness, and now the sun is shining.
By no means is anything forgotten, and there are so many legal entanglements left to settle. For some, there may never be a return to the way life was before the Jerry Sandusky scandal, for some nothing can be forgiven.
But on a hazy Thursday afternoon at Beaver Stadium, optimism was overflowing, and it’s spreading beyond Happy Valley.
“I know talking to high school coaches and other college coaches, and even in recruiting, it shows up,” Franklin said. “It shows up. I do think there’s a difference.”