If James Franklin really does ultimately end up being a used car salesman in coaching gear like some have claimed (do not count me as one of them), then he’s a darn good one. Most of us made a solemn pact at the end of the 2015 season NOT to expect too much from a team that just lost a three-year starter at QB, both offensive and defensive coordinators, three-quarters of the D-Line and a handful of transfers. And yet, here we are huddled around our digital devices on the opening day of spring practice pounding our fists with visions of bruised and beaten Buckeyes on our minds (October 22nd if you haven’t marked those calendars yet). Man he’s good, even better than I give him credit for! The truth is, as he enters his third spring in Happy Valley (reason enough to be excited for those looking for stability, considering his predecessor only lasted two) FrankLion has kept it pretty low-key this offseason. Aside from Signing Day in February and a few press conferences here and there, the James Franklin sightings have been few and far between. My hunch is, true to his word from the outset of his hiring, the phase of having to re-sell Penn State football to the outside world has suddenly shifted to the phase of proving it on the field. They may be young, but after three solid recruiting cycles the pieces are in place. In other words, he’s talked the talk, and now it’s time to walk the walk.
No, the blame cannot be fully placed on the head coach this time for the unexpected feeling of expectation. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of kids (not so much kids anymore) like DaeSean Hamilton, Marcus Allen and Jason Cabinda, three of our seasoned vets who have played a ton of football already in blue and white, yet enter this spring with a ton of football left to play. It falls on Brandon Bell who has quietly crafted his own legacy on the hallowed ground we all know fondly as Linebacker U. Blame for all this excitement sits with his comrade Nyeem Wartman-White, who burst onto the scene in 2012 with a blocked punt against Ohio State in Penn State’s first game in 61 years without a guy named Paterno on the sideline. They both enter this spring as two of our unquestioned senior leaders, even as Wartman-White continues to recover from his knee injury suffered a year ago. And, of course, blame rests on the broad shoulders of a kid named Barkley who followed his stellar freshman campaign with feats in the weight room that drew comparisons to not only the great running backs of Penn State, but brought to mind names like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson as well.
Last Friday I awoke to taste a breath of fresh air. Later that afternoon, our Nittany Lions took the field once again with the opportunity to start anew. A three-way battle to replace a legend in his own right began its initial phase. One that may very well last into the heat of August. Quarterbacks Trace McSorley (a reason enough to be excited after his valiant comeback attempt in January), Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec took snaps under the guidance of new Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead, who brings with him the promise of a wide open, line-friendly spread attack. Standing directly behind all the activity, dressed in sweats and a pulled down ball-cap instead of a helmet, was the man they’re trying to replace. After all he went through, all the touchdowns thrown and all the hits he took over the course of three seasons, it was good to see Christian Hackenberg back out there supporting his former teammates. The old warrior seeing his boys off on a new journey as he prepares for a journey of his own. Yep, it’s time for some Penn State football once again, the spring edition. Seasons change, players come and players go, but no matter how hard I try to contain it, no matter how much I struggle to keep it bottled up, I just cannot escape the feeling of expectation once those white helmets with the single blue stripe come back out!