It all began on the tarmac. A damp, cold January day was our first glimpse of a new dawn at Penn State. James Franklin stepped off that plane and bypassed the press for a brief encounter with a handful of young Nittany Lions at the fence line. After knowing the man for over a year and a half now, it wouldn't totally surprise me if he was giving a recruiting pitch for later on down the road.
Dominate the State became an instant hit and the man has stayed true to his word. After a Top 25 Class in 2014 (one he strung together in just over a month), he followed that up with one ranked inside the Top 15 this past February. Currently, the Class of 2016 sits at No. 4 overall and has verbal pledges from 7 of the Top 10 ranked players in the state. Dominate indeed. All of that is well and good, but if it does not translate on the field then it becomes a moot point. Which brings us directly to where we stand today; on the cusp of a new beginning.
Season One is in the books, of course. A season full of highs and lows. Bookended by victories in Dublin and The Big Apple, the Nittany Lions have the trophies to prove it. Both decided with game-winning kicks by a man who began his career on the wrong side of history. Sam Ficken's walk-off extra point in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl was the epitome of a storybook ending. But this was no tale or saga. The image of he and Coach Franklin embracing during the aftermath is as real as it gets. A subtle, yet powerful representation of all that Penn State Football had been through over the past three years and where Penn State is heading. A passing of the torch, if you will.
In between, we saw the frustration of youth and the deflation of high expectations. A 4-0 start and the retraction of sanctions in late September had us all planning a Rose Bowl trip by the time Northwestern rolled into town. What was supposed to be an afterthought, turned into a nightmare on Homecoming Day. The depths of reality, literally, sunk in. An injury to Nyeem Wartman-White that day, himself just a sophomore at the time, proved how fragile the 2014 edition truly was. One starter goes down and all of the sudden, a Top 5 defense turned into swiss cheese for three quarters. By the time his backups got their feet under them, it was too little, too late.
And so it went in 2014, a missed block here, an errant throw there. That was the difference between a team that squeezed out 7 wins and one that could have just as easily won 10. We all learned a valuable lesson along the way. Success begins and ends with the boys in the trenches. O-Line Coach Herb Hand inherited patchwork at best. And little depth, if any. Christian Hackenberg paid the steepest price. We watched Hack run for his life play after play, and more times than not, end up plucking clods of turf from his facemask. In the end, they managed to ring in the New Year with a winning record.
Last season was a season in limbo. A year in transition for Penn State. They took the field in late November with just over 40 scholarship players on the sideline. That is not an excuse, just the cold, hard facts. Despite the fallacies on offense, the Nittany Lion defense rose to the occasion time and time again. To the tune of the No. 2 overall defense in college football, when all was said and done. For as much as we all want that high-powered offense, Penn State wins championships with their D. Always has and always will. That is our foundation. The bedrock that Linebacker U was built upon. And that, my friends, is as good a reason as any to let that Lions Pride shine far and wide.
I began this piece with the notion that we would preview our coaches, but the truth is, after giving it some initial thought, I could not do it proper justice based on 2014. Simply put, the pieces just were not there to fully judge. Here's what I do know. After watching the man from the start, on that tarmac, James Franklin truly is a "Pennsylvania boy, with a Penn State heart". The same can be said for most of our staff. They are fully committed to their vision. That vision has Penn State sitting on top of the mountain. Not just Mount Nittany, we already claim that. No, this staff has their sights set on Everest. The pinnacle.
They believe in Penn State. They believe in the tradition that makes us who WE ARE. This staff does not want to pick up where our beloved JoePa left off. They want better. Their target is where Penn State was in the 80's and I believe in them. I can see it coming together with my own eyes. Rome was not built in a day, nor will the end result of where FrankLion has us going. It won't be in 2015, as much as I'd like to tell you otherwise. So, if you have the urge to purchase a one way ticket to the National Championship game, I urge against it. For your own good. We're not there. YET. But it IS coming. Brick by brick. The foundation is already laid. 2015 is but a small step towards where we are going. As long as we "trust the process", the end result will be UNRIVALED for years to come.