With surge, Penn State’s swag­ger re­turns

Franklin al­ways be­lieved Lions would win big

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Paul Myer­berg @PaulMyer­berg

STATE COL­LEGE, PA. Oc­ca­sion­ally dur­ing his three sea­sons at Van­der­bilt, James Franklin would hear fel­low coaches of­fer a dream com­pli­ment: Your guys play so hard, Franklin would be told, and he’d be ec­static.

It seemed so easy. By the end of his ten­ure, Franklin and his coach­ing staff had cre­ated a “great cul­ture,” one built on a few ba­sic clichés of col­lege coach­ing. Hard work would be one. Ef­fort an­other. It worked: Van­der­bilt reached three bowl games in a row, a Her­culean feat in the mid­dle of the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence’s tyran­ni­cal run atop the Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion.

Repli­cat­ing that same cul­ture at Penn State, mean­while, proved elu­sive.

“I think that was prob­a­bly a prob­lem when I first got here. I was so pos­i­tive, and I was so en­thu­si­as­tic. And it was dif­fer­ent,” Franklin told USA TO­DAY Sports.

“It was dif­fer­ent for this com­mu­nity. In their minds, what they thought of a head foot­ball coach, it didn’t look like me. It didn’t act like me. So that was a real dif­fer­ence for a lot of peo­ple. ‘Is this guy real? Is he this pos­i­tive?’ It was just dif­fer­ent. Change is hard, and this place doesn’t han­dle change that well.”

So on the heels of his sec­ond seven-win sea­son in a row in 2015, Franklin “re­cruited the team,” he said. He iden­ti­fied 45 re­turn­ing con­trib­u­tors and took them to din­ner, one on one, and talked. He asked ques­tions: What do you like? Don’t like? Don’t un­der­stand?

“I think that was when things re­ally started to change,” he said. “I got to know them. They got to know me bet­ter. We learned. We grew. I think that was re­ally the be­gin­ning of things kind of chang­ing.”

BUY­ING IN TO CUL­TURE Franklin al­ways knew he would win at Penn State; he just needed to per­suade his team to be­lieve the same. Those get-to-know-you din­ners were the first step in that process. Maybe hir­ing for­mer Ford­ham coach Joe Moor­head as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor was an­other; that move showed a will­ing­ness to bend, to be flex­i­ble, af­ter two years of mid­dling of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion.

But that cul­ture Franklin and his staff built at Van­der­bilt? That same men­tal­ity is seep­ing its way into Penn State’s foun­da­tion, Franklin said — help­ing the pro­gram to re­assert it­self in a crowd- ed Big Ten Con­fer­ence while ful­fill­ing the hype and promise that ac­com­pa­nied the new staff ’s ar­rival more than three years ago.

“We have be­lief in our­selves and the sys­tem,” se­nior tight end Mike Gesicki said. “I know it sounds corny, but we be­lieve we can do any­thing we put our mind to.”

How else to ex­plain 2016? It wasn’t Ohio State atop the fi­nal Big Ten stand­ings, nor Michi­gan, Michi­gan State or Wis­con­sin. It was the Nit­tany Lions. Af­ter two losses in its first four games — the sec­ond a 49-10 dis­as­ter at the hands of the Wolver­ines — Penn State didn’t lose again un­til the Rose Bowl, and even then in one of the most mem­o­rable games in the bowl’s sto­ried his­tory.

Re­cent teams would have folded. “I think in the past we would’ve dug a hole and stayed in it,” Gesicki said. “Last year’s group stayed the course.”

A week af­ter los­ing to Michi­gan, the Nit­tany Lions pulled out a three-point win against Minnesota. Three weeks later, on Oct. 22, Penn State shocked Ohio State 2421. Af­ter fall­ing be­hind 28-7 to Wis­con­sin in the Big Ten ti­tle game, a num­ber of Penn State play­ers stalked up and down the side­line, re­as­sur­ing team­mates that the game wasn’t over — we’ve been in this sit­u­a­tion be­fore.

“The ex­pe­ri­ences that we’ve gone through as a team have built confidence in in­di­vid­ual play­ers, in groups of play­ers, in units, on both sides of the ball,” run­ning backs coach and spe­cial-teams co­or­di­na­tor Charles Huff said. “It’s spread. Now, amongst the team, there’s a built-in confidence. And it’s not a false confidence.”

PIECES IN PLACE TO BE ELITE As the Nit­tany Lions pre­pare for the start of spring prac­tice in March, the next step in the pro­gram’s evo­lu­tion is a na­tional cham­pi­onship. Maybe confidence alone won’t bridge the gap from the Rose Bowl to a Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off na­tional semi­fi­nal; it’s not as if Alabama, Clem­son, Ohio State and Michi­gan lack confidence, af­ter all.

But other fac­tors stand in the Nit­tany Lions’ cor­ner.

A full al­lot­ment of schol­ar­ships has dra­mat­i­cally im­proved depth across the board; Penn State is three-deep at ev­ery po­si­tion, Franklin said. One year af­ter hold­ing one of the na­tion’s youngest ros­ters on the Power Five level, the 2017 Nit­tany Lions boast more se­nior lead­er­ship than at any point in the pro­gram’s post-sanc­tion ex­is­tence.

And there’s the of­fense. In over­haul­ing Penn State’s phi­los­o­phy — trad­ing meat and pota­toes for a 21st-cen­tury ap­proach to at­tack­ing de­fenses — Moor­head brought the Nit­tany Lions of­fense to the fore­front of the Big Ten in 2016. With a Heis­man Tro­phy con­tender in run­ning back Saquon Barkley in tow, along with a re­turn­ing starter at quar­ter­back and an im- proved of­fen­sive line, the of­fense might be even more pro­duc­tive.

“Last year was more about adapt­ing to a new sys­tem and learn­ing the ins and outs,” Gesicki said. “Now it’s about mastering the scheme and mastering your craft to put your­self in po­si­tion to ex­e­cute this of­fense at a high level.”

But the edge in of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion isn’t so vast as to sin­gle­hand­edly main­tain Penn State’s perch atop the Big Ten — see Ur­ban Meyer, who ad­dressed Ohio State’s scuf­fles by hir­ing for­mer In­di­ana coach Kevin Wil­son, one of the na­tion’s most well-re­garded of­fen­sive tech­ni­cians. So Franklin keeps coming back to the Nit­tany Lions’ cul­ture.

He has echoed the same re­frain for much of the early off­sea­son. In meet­ings with his team, Franklin will re­mind the Nit­tany Lions to “re­mem­ber what got us here.”

“We’ve got to keep a hum­ble, a hard­work­ing, ap­pre­cia­tive team with a chip on its shoul­der,” he said. “We’ve got to keep that. But on top of that, we’ve got to use the ex­pe­ri­ence we gained last year.”

That this off­sea­son feels dif­fer­ent — and it most cer­tainly does, from an out­sider’s per­spec­tive — can be cred­ited in part to last fall’s break­through. But at least some part of the shift at Penn State is tied to a new­found cul­ture: Franklin al­ways knew he’d win; now the Nit­tany Lions think so, too.

For the first time in years, the talk isn’t of what Penn State used to be — it’s what the Nit­tany Lions are and, bet­ter yet, what they can be.

“Ev­ery­one has al­ways talked about what Penn State was. You know, 1982, 1986, na­tional cham­pi­onships,” Franklin said. “I think for the first time in a very long time, th­ese kids have peo­ple talk­ing about what Penn State is. For the first time in a long time. To me, that’s a pow­er­ful deal.”

GARY A. VASQUEZ, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touch­downs in 2016 and is a big rea­son Penn State’s fu­ture is bright.

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