Nittany Lions embrace a fresh start
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On the front of his desk, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien has a framed photo of his two sons. On the wall behind his desk, O'Brien has a framed photo of the seniors on his first Nittany Lions team, the 2012 seniors who saved the program.
Guys such as linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, quarterback Matt McGloin and fullback Mike Zordich, corner Stephon Morris, 31 of them in all, are remembered at Penn State the way the Unforgettables are at Kentucky. The Unforgettables took the Wildcats from NCAA probation to within Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater of the 1992 Final Four.
Twenty years later, the NCAA wouldn't allow Penn State to play in a bowl game. But that doesn't mean the Nittany Lions seniors failed to get the job done.
"Those guys did as much as we did as coaches in keeping this thing together," O'Brien said.
The seniors are done. Some are off to the NFL. Some will receive their degrees Saturday. The next edition of the Penn State football team has finished spring practice. The Nittany Lions have the challenge of matching the drive and desire and brotherhood of last season's team.
The Nittany Lions say there's nothing to see here. It's a new season. Leaders leave every team every year. As far as the players are concerned, the crazy circumstances of this past summer no longer apply.
"I feel no pressure to try to follow in Mauti's footsteps or Zordich's footsteps," senior guard John Urschel said, "because it's a new year, a new team. We have different circumstances. This 2013 Penn State football team has its own identity that's disjointed from the identity of last year. We don't have the same players. We don't have the same makeup. Things are different, and we accept that. We face it."
When the NCAA slammed Penn State with four years of penalties and opened the door for its football players to leave without sitting out a year, the Nittany Lions seniors came together and persuaded the bulk of the team to stay.
"It was a lot harder for the young guys to stay because of all the circumstances," junior defensive back Adrian Amos said.
But nearly all of them did stay. They felt they owed a debt to the seniors, and to each other. The seniors repaid them. When Penn State began the season 0-2, including a painful 17-16 loss at Virginia, the seniors kept the team focused.
"The leaders [were] always giving us confidence that we can make a play," junior wide receiver Allen Robinson said. He remembered standing in the huddle against Northwestern, trailing 28-17 in the final minute of the third quarter, with Penn State deep in its own territory.
"McGloin said, 'This is the moment that we practice for, that we lift for, and let's just string a drive together and try to put some points together,'" Robinson said.
The Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10, including a 24-21 overtime defeat of Wisconsin to finish the season. The next week, the Badgers won the Big Ten championship. The Penn State players took pride in knowing they had beaten the conference winner.
"That's the most fun I've ever had playing football," Urschel said. "We were all very lighthearted during the season. We had fun going out and practicing. You don't really have that, where guys are excited to go out and practice. Usually, practice is a drudgery. But we were all just enjoying football and not worrying about anything else."
The players believe that 2013 will be easier, and not just because the threat of dissolution is no longer extant. They know O'Brien's schemes. They know that if they do what he and his coaches tell them, they will win games.
The leadership tasks the older players face are the more prosaic ones. Robinson vowed to lead with actions.
"I just try to lead by example," he said, "by lifting hard in the weight room or trying to make plays in practice or doing something to keep us upbeat as a team."
Fifth-year senior corner Malcolm Willis will suggest to the young defensive backs that they not follow in his footsteps.
"I didn't watch film when I was a young guy. I just thought, 'Just go out on the field and play,'" Willis said. When the older guys in the secondary, solid players like Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, would ask him why he wasn't in the video room with them, Willis would hide behind his class work.
Then he noticed something.
"I was like, 'I'm not playing,'" Willis said. "Maybe I need to do this."
The difference, of course, is that, with the scholarship limits beginning to empty the locker room, Penn State needs everyone to contribute. The young players will be watching video.
"We have some younger guys who will emerge as a leader once the season starts because they're going to play and they're going to make plays," O'Brien said, "guys who didn't even play last year. Like a Geno Lewis, like a Jordan Lucas, like a Brent Wilkerson. You've got a mixture, whereas last year, it was the senior class."
When those 31 seniors left after last season, only 15 of their replacements came in on scholarships. The Nittany Lions' skill level likely will show the difference. It is what it is. The leadership gap doesn't have to be as large. That will depend on the players' maturity and focus and determination in the face of great odds.
This summer, Penn State will do what teams across America will do. The players will run practices. They will arrange bonding activities, cookouts and hangouts and whatever it is college kids do. They hope to be just another team, even if they have fewer players.