James Franklin stood at a lectern before the assembled Big Ten media in Chicago and fielded questions about Penn State’s bright future, lofty expectations and other positive developments inside the Nittany Lions football program.
There wasn’t a hint of crisis.
Despair caused by one of the most sordid chapters in college sports history continues to fade further and further into the background.
“There’s a buzz and excitement from the people that I’ve talked to that have been around for a long time that I haven’t seen in a while,” Franklin said.
Penn State football is back on solid footing. Though the stain and heartbreak caused by the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal will never go away, the program has survived decimating sanctions in a fast-track return to power.
Under Franklin’s leadership, the Nittany Lions became a surprise story of the 2016 season by winning the Big Ten Championship to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. A loss to USC in a wild shootout only strengthened their resolve to prove last season wasn’t a fluke.
The Nittany Lions return a host of key starters, namely their dynamic duo on offense: quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, both legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates.
Penn State enters the season ranked No. 6 in the preseason poll and is generating buzz as a team capable of qualifying for college football’s four-team playoff.
“There’s obviously a lot of people talking nationally about Penn State,” Franklin said. “In our community there’s always high expectations. I’m not saying I’m not aware that this year is a little bit different. But Penn State is a place where there’s always really, really high expectations.”
Well, not after the Sandusky scandal ripped the program — and entire university community — to pieces. Sanctions imposed by the NCAA were so severe (including significant scholarship losses) that many assumed it would take the program at least a decade to recover.
Joe Paterno’s fall from grace necessitated a new course in Happy Valley, one that Bill O’Brien started and then Franklin continued in 2014. Attrition and scholarship reductions depleted the roster to such a degree that the Nittany Lions had only seven offensive linemen on scholarship when Franklin arrived. He moved two defensive linemen to offense in a pinch.
“Everybody realizes we walked into a challenging situation,” Franklin said. “And I make the argument that our best probably years coaching were years one and two. Everybody is focused on this past season, but the groundwork and the foundation that we laid in year one and two, which is what allowed us to have the success that we had this year.”
Franklin posted back-to-back 7-6 records his first two seasons before guiding his team to a breakthrough 2016. Expectations for their encore offer no ambiguity.
The Barkley-McSorley tandem gives Penn State one of the most potent 1-2 punches in college football. The offense returns nearly every starter from a unit that averaged 37.6 points per game last season.
McSorley passed for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns while leading the nation at 16.1 yards per completion. And he might be No. 2 on opposing defenses’ list of concerns.
Barkley is the undisputed catalyst. The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. He accounted for 22 touchdowns total and finished second in Penn State history in single-season all-purpose yards with 1,927.
Defensive coordinators beware: Coaches plan to expand Barkley’s role as a receiving option.
“That idea came to my head when Coach Franklin challenged me to try to become a better receiver, a better player overall,” Barkley said. “I do feel like I’m capable to do a lot with the ball in my hand in space.”
Or not in his hands, Franklin said, because Barkley is valuable as a decoy, too.
“We all realize everybody’s game plan is going to be Saquon Barkley,” he said. “But with the talent we’re surrounding him with, it makes it difficult to do that.”
The Nittany Lions aren’t sneaking up on anyone this season. The program no longer sags under the heavy weight of turmoil. Returning talent from a Rose Bowl team makes them a legitimate playoff contender.
More help is on the way. Franklin has recruited three consecutive top-20 classes and his 2018 class is ranked No. 3 nationally by Rivals.com.
Expectations are soaring again, something Franklin knows well. But he preaches the need to ignore outside “noise” and the pressure that accompanies it.
“I don’t want to make it overly businesslike,” he said. “I don’t want to become one of those programs where the losses destroy you and the wins are expected. We want to enjoy the wins.”