Blue White Illustrated

September 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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6 S E P T E M B E R 2 0 2 1 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M W ith James Franklin, the subtext is often as important as what he ac- tually says. At Big Ten media days in Indianapolis late last month, Franklin made sure to emphasize the major themes on his mind for Penn State's 2021 season. Running through his coaching staff and its philos- ophies, the challenge of the season's first game at Wisconsin, and the highlights of the player personnel throughout the roster, Franklin worked his way up to his overarching point. "There's a lot of excitement in our program. Our leadership is tremendous," he said. "We're hungry. Obviously, we've got a chip on our shoulder. We've had a lot of success at Penn State, and we're excited to get back to that." That last sentence, in which he high- lighted the program's success during his tenure and the Nittany Lions' eagerness to return to it, said everything about the contrast Franklin was trying to draw between the team's doomed 2020 cam- paign and the one set to begin in just a couple of weeks against the Badgers. In short order, the Nittany Lions' run- up through August, September and Oc- tober into the late start of the amended, nine-game 2020 campaign proved to be a polar opposite of the optimism that is so readily apparent this preseason. The excitement in the program? The Nittany Lions appeared to lack it completely last year, with the team saddled by severe COVID-19 precautions that were made worse by a cascade of bad news. Penn State first saw All-America linebacker Micah Parsons opt out, then watched as the Big Ten waffled for a month on whether to even have a season, then learned that running back Journey Brown would have to give up football altogether when he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. By the time Penn State's spirited comeback at Indiana came undone in the most dramatic way possible, in a game that also included a season-ending in- jury to sophomore running back Noah Cain, followed by a thrashing at the hands of Ohio State and then the loss of tight end Pat Freiermuth to injury, any semblance of excitement was replaced by a sense of daily dread and joylessness. Tremendous leadership? Penn State's players and coaches might have had the best intentions a year ago, and their efforts to mitigate the pandemic produced infection-free re- sults that spoke for themselves. But, with regard to football, finding true leadership was as difficult as finding positive results in the wins column at the season's start. So toxic was Penn State's environment that normally soft-spoken receiver Jahan Dotson grabbed the attention of both the public and the team when he brought the issue of distractions to light after the Nittany Lions' third consecutive loss to open the year. "I can't speak for everyone but I just know … we're not as one right now. We're not a unit right now," Dotson said after a 35-19 loss to Maryland at home. "There are a lot of different things going on. There are just distractions that we shouldn't be focused on right now. We've got to be focused on getting in the win column and nothing else, literally. That's the biggest thing right now, and I feel like we've just got to come together as one." Hunger, a chip on their shoulder, and success were also elements missing from the equation until the Nittany Lions had bottomed out with a 41-21 home loss to Iowa five weeks into the campaign. But Penn State managed to persevere and flip the narrative, beating Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois in successive weeks to end the season. In the process, the Nittany Lions set the stage for a different kind of offseason. Over the past few months, Franklin has emphasized unity as a crucial element of the program's success. He believes that everyone's attitude and effort should be in sync from the top down, and that has been one of the biggest storylines for the Nittany Lions throughout the offseason. It's been described sometimes as "ac- countability," and the team's path back to the upper tier of the Big Ten and the nation has been tied directly to its ability to re-establish the elements that were absent a year ago. "I think alignment is critical, whether that is the coaches being aligned with the players and the players being aligned with the coaches, and us all being on the same page, from a leadership perspec- tive and how we do things and how we go about our business," Franklin said. "I just feel really good about that right now in our senior leaders and our young leaders who are growing and developing. "I think we laid a great foundation over the past eight years and have done some pretty darn good things, and [it's important to] make sure that we get back to those things and that everything we do aligns with winning and championship habits." As they prepare for the new season, Franklin and his players are determined to find themselves back in Indianapolis in December for a shot at the Big Ten championship. No longer haunted by the memories of 2020, they have an op- portunity to return to their foundational approach in the season ahead. ■ James Franklin said his team is entering the 2021 season with "a chip on our sholder." PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL O P I N I O N NATE BAUER HOT READ Nittany Lions' Revival Will Be A Group Effort

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