Penn State players following James Franklin's map to go from 'great' to 'elite'
Penn State coach James Franklin, after a second consecutive one-point loss to Ohio State in 2018, delivered a map that would take his team from "great" to "elite." His monologue included a series of detailed directions, along with a promise.
"You guys thought I was a psychopath in the past?" Franklin said as recruits watched from the Beaver Stadium media room lounge. "You have no idea."
This spring, the Lions are getting a taste of what that means. Beyond the blustery aftermath of last September's 27-26 loss to the Buckeyes, Franklin has refreshed his message of what's required to become a College Football Playoff contender.
The concepts aren't new, for Franklin or any coach, but players say they're internalizing them better than before. From sitting in the front row during class to taking notes in every position meeting, the Lions seem to be following Franklin's map.
"It's weird how coach Franklin has this all mapped out," defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said. "... Anything that's a distraction, that pulls the rope in the opposite direction from a championship, basically you have to just cut it out."
Young roster: Penn State, which concludes spring drills with the April 13 Blue-White game, returns a young roster from 2018, when the team capped a 9-4 season with a disappointing loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. The Lions must replace their starting quarterback, running back and two team captains, notably Trace McSorley, the program's winningest quarterback ever.
From that, though, players said a new team has emerged this spring, one that's faster and hungrier. Especially on offense, where tight end Pat Freiermuth said he defines growth in small measures with each practice rep.
"We're young, we're talented, we're fast and we're very explosive," said Freiermuth, who was a freshman all-American last season. "... I feel like everyone this year is just more attentive to the little details, and we're just trying to get everything perfect."
Fueled by Ohio State losses: Further, the roster consists of players who either have watched or have played in consecutive one-point losses to Ohio State, which helped derail two playoff runs. Some players were in uniform on the sideline, others followed along as recruits.
Either way, the residue of those games has fueled moments of spring drills.
"When you're a recruit, you see [the close losses] on TV," senior linebacker Cam Brown said. "You're so close, even when you're committed, you want your team to win. Everybody sees the College Football Playoff. Everybody wants to be in it. It's not needed for motivation. Losing to Ohio State is enough motivation for me."
"Championship habits:" Like most coaches, Franklin stresses the term "championship habits," infusing it through the program. Sometimes, though, the words get lost coming from coaches so often. So Shelton said players made accountability their own term this winter.
Shelton further referenced former running back Saquon Barkley and the depth of talent Penn State had during its recent run. Penn State is one of just six programs to rank in the CFP's top 15 the last three seasons, along with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Washington.
It's also the only program in the group not to make the playoffs.
"We had arguably the greatest college football player in a long time, and none of us has a national championship," Shelton said. "Our biggest thing is, we're focusing on the little things, trying to make sure everybody is as close as possible.
"Sometimes, when your coach gets on you, you might take it in a certain way. But when your friends or teammates get on you, you know it's different. We really have to buy into this. We really have to live championship habits. None of us wants to feel that again. Nobody likes traveling to Florida and losing. We're tired of letting things slip through our fingers, so we have to change our behavior."