The huge Big Ten championship ring that Mike Gesicki wore reminded everyone who attended the conference’s football media days in Chicago that Penn State — not Ohio State, not Michigan, not Wisconsin — hoisted the league’s championship trophy late on a Saturday night last December in Indianapolis.
The funny thing is, when the Big Ten held the same summer preview of the 2016 football season in the Windy City a year ago, the Nittany Lions couldn’t even be found on the list of contenders for a championship, perhaps the result of back-to-back 7-6 records in James Franklin’s first two years as head coach.
No one, however, anticipated a magical season in which the Lions recovered from a 49-10 lambasting at Michigan to win their next nine games, including a come-from-behind win over Wisconsin for the conference title, before losing on the last play of the Rose Bowl to Southern California.
So when Big Ten teams and officials gathered this week to talk about the coming season, Penn State was prominently mentioned as the team with the best chance to knock off favored Ohio State thanks to a number of key players returning.
Starting with Monday’s opening of training camp, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it. Definitely easier said than done.
“We want to be able to move forward and put 2016 behind us, but use those experiences and the confidence and the momentum that we built last year to propel us in 2017,” Gesicki said in an interview with the Big Ten Network. “As a team, now that we understand the big-picture stuff and we know what we’re working towards and what we need to do. We need to focus on the little things.
“In Big Ten football, if you want to be one of the top teams in the country, there’s such a small margin of error. So for us, we need to just focus on the little things in practice each and every day and just be focused on those little things, because football is a game of inches and a game of small movements that will ultimately make the biggest impact.”
Small movements don’t describe the way the offense blossomed last year under first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, with juniors Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley enjoying the types of dynamic seasons that have them on every preseason list of 2017 Heisman Trophy contenders.
Barkley, a 5-foot-11, 223-pound combination of power and speed, rushed for 1,496 yards and scored 22 touchdowns running and receiving. McSorley set single-season program records for passing yards (3,614), passing touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,979). Both will benefit from an offensive line that was vastly improved last season.
Led by linebacker Jason Cabinda and free safety Marcus Allen, the defense is tough and talented. And the Lions return two specialists – kicker Tyler Davis, punter Blake Gillikin – who earned postseason honors in 2016.
The Nittany Lions lost just two starters on offense and four on defense, but Franklin is faced with some holes to fill. One of the more pressing questions is finding new starters at both defensive-end spots, where three Philadelphia-area players – redshirt sophomores Shareef Miller (George Washington) and Ryan Buchholz (Great Valley) and redshirt freshman Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter) – are in the mix.
The Lions also would like to find a go-to receiver to fill the role left vacant by the departure of Chris Godwin (59 receptions, 982 yards, 11 touchdowns) to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And on special teams, they need a new long snapper and a kickoff man to replace Joey Julius, who is no longer with the program.
Penn State will try to ignore the rabble of expectations, both in Happy Valley and nationally, as it trains for the new season, which will open Sept. 2 against Akron at Beaver Stadium. Franklin makes it a point of embracing the expectations, and he thinks his players do, as well.
But there is further motivation from the loss in the Rose Bowl, and trying to take it one extra step after falling one notch short of a berth in the College Football Playoff.
“It obviously didn’t end the way we wanted it to end,” Franklin said. “I think we ended the season where our guys were really hungry and able to do some pretty good things last year. I think it ended in a way where our guys are wanting more. So we’re excited about this season and everything that it’s going to bring and all the story lines that are going to go with it.”
Here are some questions as Penn State enters training camp
Who will step up to replace Chris Godwin as the big-play receiver? Redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson (Glassboro) had a strong spring and could emerge, and senior Saeed Blacknall had six catches of 20-plus yards last season. But coach James Franklin has pointed to senior DaeSean Hamilton, who caught 82 balls as a freshman, and 79 in the last two seasons.
Who will take over as the starting defensive ends? There are a lot of able candidates for the job. Redshirt junior Torrence Brown is probably the most experienced of the bunch, and other contenders include redshirt freshman Shane Simmons and three from the Philadelphia area: Shareef Miller (George Washington), Ryan Buchholz (Great Valley), and Shaka Toney (Imhotep).
Will the kicking game be as reliable as last year? Franklin liked that Tyler Davis, who kicked 22 field goals in 24 attempts, could focus on placements and leave the kickoff duties to Joey Julius. But with Julius not on the roster, Davis might have to do double duty. The Lions also need a long snapper, and Kyle Vasey had a good spring in that role.
Who will assume the starting cornerback spot vacated by John Reid? Reid (St. Joseph’s Prep) injured his left knee in the spring and likely will not be back this season. Senior Christian Campbell is the presumed candidate to replace him, but the coaching staff is very high on true freshman Lamont Wade, who enrolled in January and had an impressive spring.
Will Penn State let all the back-patting from last year go to its head? That remains to be seen. Franklin has made it a point throughout the offseason of putting the successful 2016 campaign in the rearview mirror, but his players still are being congratulated for their achievements. The head coach is a persuasive leader, however, so it shouldn’t be an issue.