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Penn State Football Has 'The Most Lit Locker Room In the Country'

by on September 10, 2017 9:00 PM

James Franklin calls it a "healthy locker room."

It's one full of chemistry, camaraderie, connections, respect and buy-in.

And yes, cue the sappy music, even love.

"As much as football is about X's and O's and execution and stuff like that," said offensive tackle Andrew Nelson on Saturday, back on the field after a season-ending injury in 2016," team chemistry can really define your team."

If that's the case, then Marcus Allen is Dr. Feelgood.

The senior safety with buckets of charisma that makes thousands of young women across the internet go all-aTwitter sets the tone for the Nittany Lions' locker room — especially after victories.

"Marcus gets it going," says linebacker Koa Farmer. "That's the time we enjoy the most, being in that locker room. It's just fun. Everyone puts in all the work during the week and the summer. So it's like, these 12 games, when we get this win it's just a great feeling. We get in the locker room and Marcus gets it going and all the emotions come out."

Armed with a cellphone, a huge Twitter following that got its origins when Allen was a sensation on Vine back in his days at Dr. Henry Wise High School in Maryland, Allen is the fun of winning personified.

He has over 46,000 followers on Twitter — almost 5,000 more than Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley — and it's a group that expects big things. After both of Penn State's victories to open the 2017, Allen hasn't disappointed.

After the Akron victory, Allen tweeted a locker room ode to rapper Lil Uzi Vert and his "How to Talk" song. Over 32,000 people "liked" the clip, and over 9,000 retweeted it.

On Saturday, after Penn State beat Pitt in a victory capped off by Allen's late-game safety, Allen followed up with Lil Uzi Vert's "Sauce It Up," which drew an additional 19,000 likes and 7,000 retweets.

THE MARCUS ALLEN FAN CLUB

Rabid fans had this to Tweet about Allen after the past two post-game celebrations:

"He's suddenly the coolest dude in all of college football."

"Used to watch this dude's vine's back when no one knew who he was."

"If there ever was a college football award for most sauce, Marcus Allen would win it."

"I suddenly want to go to Penn State now."

"Most lit college football player in the country."

"Never forgot him being super nice to me in McDonald's...glad he played well."

"Marcus Allen's postgame locker room videos are my favorite thing on Twitter."

"I've been telling you...this is the most lit locker room in the country. Run the table boys. #WeAre."

 

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Post-game isn't all about Allen. On the clip after Saturday's win, over a dozen of his teammates joined in — from Barkley himself to Brandon Smith to Allen video staple Josh McPhearson. It's a tone-setter for the Nittany Lions.

"It's crazy," says special team ace and co-captain Nick Scott. "We're all 21-, 22-year-olds and we just won a game and played in front of 110,000 fans and we beat a great team. The feeling is overwhelming. We don't ever want to take those feelings for granted coming out with a win every week. The locker room is blazing right now. We're having fun."

Winning is fun. And Penn State has won 11 of its past 12 games, losing only in the final seconds in the Rose Bowl against USC. Assuming Penn State defeats Georgia State this Saturday, when the Nittany Lions take the field at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa on Sept. 23, it will have been 364 days — dating back to Sept. 24, 2016, in Ann Arbor — since they last lost a regular-season game.

So, yes, it's easy to be lit when you are lighting teams up.

A NEW ATTITUDE

But it wasn't always that way for this team.

"When you have success, guys start having a lot more fun. Guys connect better," said Nelson. "But that was something Coach Franklin stressed going into last season. He felt like our chemistry wasn't where it could be. That's something that we took to heart. Just loving up on every single guy. Being excited for every guy. Getting everybody part of this team, part of our victories. We took that to heart: Our chemistry needs to be tight. Our relationships need to be tighter than on any team. And you can see the fruits of those labors.

"That's what changed our team in general over the past two years — and you kind of saw near the end of the season last year — just the camaraderie between the guys. The chemistry that we have on this team is better than any team I've ever been a part of. That's something that makes us special — the chemistry between the guys. Everybody is happy for everybody. Even when I only get a couple of series here and there and Chasz (Wright) is in there, when he makes a good block I'm going crazy: 'Great job, Chasz. Great job!' The chemistry and camaraderie are defining our team right now."

Franklin addressed that issue head-on in a piece that he penned for "The Players Tribune" website, which ran a few days before the 2017 season-opener. In it, he acknowledged that many of the players who had been through one, two, three and even four head coaches before his arrival had created a chasm in the locker room that tore apart some of the team. Reduced scholarships had a big role in back-to-back 7-6 seasons, but so did a lack of buy-in into what Franklin was selling.

That's nothing new. But that Franklin put it out there, nationally, on Derek Jeter's website, was.

"Trust is an extremely difficult thing to nurture and develop, but it’s also a really easy thing to lose," Franklin wrote. "When I arrived at Penn State, this was a program that was hurting for a lot of different reasons. And as a result, there wasn’t much trust within the locker room. That’s not the case anymore."

THE FRANKLIN ERA

On Saturday, Scott turned a phrase that was new — at least in the public sharing of the players' vernacular.

"This is kind of like The Franklin Era," said Scott, from the DMV, a region with whom Franklin connects especially well. "We got guys who've been hearing the same message over and over again for four years now. With that, the phases of the game are coming together. A lot of that has to do with everybody in this program has been hearing the same message for four years. We've added some new guys to the family and that's not been a problem; they're out there busting their tails just like us."

Philosopher Johan Huizinga puts it this way, when describing the closeness of a group that engages together in play:

"A play-community generally tends to become permanent even after the game is over...The feeling of being 'apart together' in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game. The club pertains to play as the hat to the head."

Franklin employs a number of methodologies to foster that closeness of his club. He's a big one for inclusion and wrapping his firm and enveloping bro hugs around large groups. He's a pleaser, who hates to leave anyone out. For instance, he has eight co-captains, the most in Penn State history. His players council has 30 members — a large group that includes 21 seniors. As I wrote recently, a full 14 members of his current staff have worked with him before he arrived at Penn State. Other than the three-man departure of assistants Bob Shoop, Herb Hand and John Donovan following the 2015 season, Franklin has had the same core of assistant coaches since his arrival at Penn State in January 2014.

He's also tried to wrap his arms a bit wider around the Penn State family. In addition to the initial hiring of cornerbacks coach and former Nittany Lion receiving star Terry Smith, Franklin has added a number of Penn Staters to his staff over the past year — recruiting assistants and former players Andrew Goodman and Justin King (Smith's stepson); grad assistant Matt Fleischacker, who was a student assistant then departed for a year to Appalachian State; and former O-lineman Derek Dowrey, now an intern under strength and conditioning guru Dwight Galt. The PSU family thing extends to Galt's family as well; his son, Dwight Galt IV, is a strength and conditioning assistant who was actually at PSU before his dad; he came to Penn State under Bill O'Brien.

IN THEIR DEFENSE

In some ways, the stalwart effort by the Penn State defense vs. Pitt on Saturday may have helped to strengthen the team bonds. All anyone has talked about over the past 10 months of Penn State football is the explosive offense. Brent Pry's defense has played second fiddle — which happens when you have a ton of players injured and suspended early in the year, then give up 83 points in the final two games.

On Saturday, although the offense scored 33 points, it needed the defense. For a change. Pry's rapidly-developing group, which recorded a shutout in the opener, came through.

"At the end of the day we have each other's back," said senior co-captain and linebacker Jason Cabinda, who with Allen is the only guaranteed every-down player on Penn State's defense. "If the offense isn't doing too well, the defense needs to step up. We knew we we are a good group, defense-wise. There are of guys making plays out there. The tackles are spread out. The TFLs, the sacks, are distributed through a lot of players. We have a lot of depth. That helps as well."

Farmer elaborates: "That's the mentality we expect. We want them to have our back and we want to have their back. We want that kind of pressure. We want to be in the red zone on fourth down, we want it on us -- that defense has to win this game. Our offense is very explosive, very good — which is a credit to them. But when we get on the field, we feel the game is on us. We have a very veteran team. A lot of guys were playing a lot, were into the game last year, although not starting — including myself. We are now. And we're getting young guys on the field early."

Everybody, says Scott, wants to get in on the act.

"The biggest thing is that our experience is through the roof," Scott said after the game on Saturday. "We have guys fighting to be on special teams — guys who have huge roles on offense, like DaeSean (Hamilton), for instance. We have a lot of guys who have pride and aren't afraid to be on special teams. Some teams, you have starters who take themselves off of special teams. They don't want to be on it. That's not how we do it here."

GETTING DEEP ABOUT IT

Franklin — more than anyone, given the demands placed on him during the scholarship shortage during the sanction era — recognizes that depth is important, not only on the field but off it. From top to bottom. Penn State's depth chart heading into the Pitt game featured 10 true freshmen — a big number for a program coming off an 11-win season and one that long eschewed even acknowledging the existence of such youngsters. That depth chart included 17 final-year seniors, a testament to the program's newly-found depth and the importance that Franklin places on older leadership.

Depth also helps in the locker room. Creating a special package for No. 2 quarterback Tommy Stevens keeps him engaged, somewhat happy and a bit in the limelight. That's tres important when Trace McSorley, the starting QB, could be sidelined with one scramble that suddenly goes south.

That depth, Franklin said in the run-up to Pitt last week, "is really important. You look at our time even back at Vanderbilt, we played a lot of guys. It's something that we really believe in, in terms of a way to keep guys fresh, a way to try to create as many guys as we can who feel they have significant roles on the team and who are involved — which creates a healthy locker room."

Franklin is admittedly anal about such things. As much as he lives by the RPO these days, he also adheres to the rigors of SOP, as taught to him by his dad, who served overseas in the military. It's all by design.

In pre-game warmups, Franklin hugs every player, many of them multiple times, in addition to most staffers and assistants. He'll take time out before the game when, standing at mid-field and talking with the officials, to stop and welcome recruits with a tight embrace and a few words into their ears. He peppers his daily team meetings with his players in Lasch with motivational Powerpoints and videos. A psychology major in his college days, Franklin is at times as much Dr. Phil as he is Bill Belichick. Growing up in a single-parent household has a lot to do with it.

"In fact, I think my background is one of my greatest assets as a professional because it’s helped me to relate and empathize with people from varying circumstances in a way that’s somewhat unique," Franklin wrote in The Players Tribune. "We all want success, we all want love and we all want to trust that the people we surround ourselves with wish those things for us. If you can create an environment where a young person deeply feels a sense of those three things, the winning will come."

And it has.

DANCE FEVER

When it does, Marcus Allen is there with his cellphone, to the delight of rap fans and young women literally across the country. Allen is the ringleader, but the big boss — Franklin — gets into the post-game dance parties as well. (Which explains why his post-game pressers are delayed.)

"We're like one big family after the game," Farmer said. "Everyone's involved. James dances too."

Is he a good dancer? I asked him.

The linebacker from California made a face and raised his eyebrows a little. That's a no.

But Farmer said nothing — knowing, in this case, to keep the peace it's better to not be frank about Franklin.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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