Two years ago, James Franklin urged Penn State fans to be patient. He and his players believed a plan was in motion.
That patience wore thin through back-to-back 7-6 seasons, but paid off last season. After shaking off a slow start, the Nittany Lions won nine straight games, including a come-from-behind victory in the Big Ten championship game that put them within reach of a playoff berth.
“Last year’s last year, and this year’s this year,” Franklin said. “We want to take all those experiences and maturity that we gained from last year and then continue growing and evolving.”
That’s been a theme since Franklin took over a program then reeling from NCAA sanctions and reduced scholarship numbers.
Back then, Franklin committed to playing handfuls of freshmen. Now, players who were vaunted recruits at the time have formed a core of grizzled veterans who are primed to take the next step.
But the Nittany Lions have more than just experience going for them.
Nine starters, including dynamic running back Saquon Barkley, return to an offense that was among the country’s most explosive down the stretch. Six defensive starters are back to take cues from rising defensive coordinator Brent Pry and juniors and sophomores return who all have logged meaningful time or swapped starts during Franklin’s tenure. Newly arriving freshmen are looking to earn a job right away, giving this camp a much more competitive feel than last season.
That’s what Franklin wants.
“If you go into practice and you’re screwing up, making mistakes, guys are going to pass you,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “It’s no longer a point where you have the first team and then with the second team there’s a drop off and then the third team after that is a bigger drop off. We have guys on the second and third teams that the coaches feel really good about playing.”
Barkley's world: Everyone from coaches to teammates to Heisman Trophy prognosticators feel good about Barkley.
His 2,572 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns over the past two years have usually come via spectacular runs and he could turn similar numbers into the school’s second Heisman win. Running back John Cappelletti won it in 1973.
“It’s something that I can truly say, we’re not really thinking about with each play,” offensive tackle Andrew Nelson said. “The thing we do think about is the fact that if we can do our job every play, it’s not if or when he’s going to make a big play, it’s he will make a big play.”
Trace's space: Quarterback Trace McSorley quickly emerged as a dangerous player last season, not only for an ability to extend plays or smart decision-making, but for his downfield throwing ability few teams were prepared for.
Expect more from McSorley in Year 2 of Joe Moorhead’s no-huddle offense.
The usually reserved Moorhead grew offended at suggestions he heard in the offseason that McSorley’s efforts were flukey. In fact, his system is much more nuanced than it might’ve looked when McSorley was picking on safeties over the top.
“A kid couldn’t lead the league in multiple passing categories and set school single season records and be on the verge of multiple other school records if he was just throwing the ball indiscriminately down the field,” Moorhead said.
Turning the corner: The secondary lost its best cover cornerback when John Reid suffered a serious knee injury in the spring. Reid, who played more snaps than any Nittany Lion last season, was expected to lead a secondary that was returning mostly intact.
While Franklin hasn’t ruled Reid out for the season, he doesn’t seem close to returning. Reid took an internship for the summer and was still in Oregon fulfilling it when camp began.
Pry has options, however. Christian Campbell has started when others have been hurt and adds length opposite Grant Haley, one of the team’s most experienced and cerebral players.
Line games: This team is built to withstand injuries in bunches. It proved it last season when all three starting linebackers were out early and both starting offensive tackles were hurt late.
As a result, more offensive linemen like Connor McGovern got playing time and Penn State enters 2017 with a legit two-deep that could potentially be mixed and matched with potential for success.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions would benefit from a bonafide pass-rusher to emerge. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller are the frontrunners, but have had to earn reps behind older players up until this year.