Three years ago, James Franklin snapped — and in doing so, set the tone for the kind of program he wanted to run.
After a 20-14 win over Army on Oct. 3, 2015, Franklin, who was peppered with questions as if it were a loss, said, “I’m gonna come in here every single week and be positive. Even if it kills you guys and you want me to be negative.”
Win or lose, blowout or close call, that unrelenting positivity has permeated Penn State since Franklin’s January 2014 arrival. But sometimes, players need a peer to be direct. They need someone who won’t bite their tongue. They need a voice to call out the good and the bad.
This season, that person has been Shareef Miller — a three-year starting pass-rusher with plenty of passion and no filter. And that presence has helped establish a healthy locker room.
“I’ve always been an honest person, and I’ll always speak my mind,” Miller said Wednesday. “I don’t hold anything back.”
Not an act or show: That’s who Miller is. It’s not an act or a show. But he also knew this was a role he needed to fill in 2018.
This offseason, Penn State’s defense lost seven starters to the NFL. Even Penn State’s elder statesmen had question marks surrounding them, with John Reid returning from a season-ending knee injury, Amani Oruwariye transitioning from Penn State’s “third starter” at corner, and Nick Scott — while named the unit’s captain — starting at safety for the first time.
Miller came into this season as a constant, though. He was a 12-game starter last season, and there was no doubt he’d retain that spot come 2018.
Excelling on field: And through eight games, Miller has provided the Nittany Lions a boost in more ways than one. The Philadelphia native has racked up 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and four hurries while fighting through double teams, looking every bit like a future NFL prospect. Then, there’s the intensity Miller channels off the field, visible last weekend as he paced the sidelines and tapped his chest, talking up teammates before the defense stopped Iowa’s attempt at a game-winning drive.
The Nittany Lions need that unconditional encouragement. And they welcome the constructive criticism, too.
“The coaches and everybody are trying to be overly positive. But when you have a player like Shareef that’s going to be blunt and be honest, it opens up the room so we all feel more comfortable,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “We know we’re not doing great at certain times, and he’ll point that out. And when he knows we’re doing great, he’s right by your side.”
Following his lead: Fifth-year wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins echoed Brown’s sentiment, saying Miller’s voice gives Penn State a sense of “diversity” in the locker room. Captain and quarterback Trace McSorley used the word “gravitate” four times in a 77-second answer about the redshirt junior, saying younger players — and there are plenty of them — “follow his lead.”
Of course, Miller isn’t the lone voice in the Lasch Building. Franklin and his staff hold the players accountable, whether it’s behind closed doors or in the media. It’s not all positivity all the time.
But it is unique when a teammate steps up and critiques himself and others. It’s worth noting when a guy like Miller offers his unabashed opinions, good or bad.
Veterans like McSorley, Brown and Thompkins know they’re better off for it. And thankfully for the Nittany Lions, Miller won’t change any time soon.
“That’s just me as a person. That’s how I’ve always been,” Miller said. “I tell the truth, and I tell it how it is.”