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Penn State Football’s Most Important Ingredient in 2019

by on May 12, 2019 7:00 PM

Leadership.

More than anything else in 2019, the Nittany Lions will need strong leadership in the locker room.

It could be Priority No. 1 for Penn State, as players both old and new return to campus this week for the start of summer classes — 111 days ahead of the season opener.

A team is only as strong and successful as the bond of its players off the field. Character, and not being a character, counts.

So says Terry Smith, longtime Penn State assistant coach and co-captain of the 11-2, third-ranked 1991 Nittany Lions:

“As coaches, we always know when we’re going to have a good team. It’s when the players are controlling the locker room. It’s not when the coaches are going in there.”

Smith’s boss, sixth-year Penn State head coach James Franklin, who is embarking on his 25th season as a college football coach, concurs: “The best teams are player-led and player-driven, and not by coaches.”

For the Nittany Lions, those players who will be providing leadership are new. Or, at least new to the role.

WISE COUNSEL

You know who’s gone. No list is necessary. But this one statistic points to the leadership void that exists in the Nittany Lion locker room as they head into a summer of player-led drills, at least when it comes to pure numbers:

In 2018, Franklin’s Leadership Council was comprised of 24 players — and 16 of them are now gone.

The dearly departed includes 13 former seniors and three of the five then-juniors on the council: Ryan Bates, Juwan Johnson and Tommy Stevens. That trio left PSU with eligibility remaining for myriad reasons, taking 12 Penn State seasons of through-thick-and-thin wisdom and maturity, plus 56 combined starts, with them.

Returning council members are 2019 seniors Blake Gillikin and John Reid; juniors Tariq Castro-Fields, Will Fries and Michael Menet; and redshirt sophomores Jonathan Sutherland, C.J. Thorpe and presumptive first-time starter at quarterback, Sean Clifford.

Last August, Franklin himself touted the importance of the council, now dwindled but soon to be re-stocked:

“This group becomes more valuable every year because of the relationships we develop and the ability to discuss topics and challenges facing our team, university and community with solution-oriented conversations. It is critical to continue to develop leadership skills within our team, not only for this year, but to prepare these young men for life after Penn State."

The key now, for Franklin & Co., is not who is gone. It is who remains. And who will lead?

And not just during games, but during practice, inside Lasch, while leading summer workouts and — perhaps most critically for a very young and a bit free-wheeling squad — during the players’ student-side of life, on campus, going (or not going) to class, and out-and-about at parties and while hanging out in town.

Especially for a team as young as Penn State will be in 2019. The roster will feature over 70 players who are true or redshirt sophomores or younger. Add in a dozen or so incoming freshman, and Franklin will have perhaps his youngest-ever group of Lions.

The biggest challenge for a team that has yet to come of age, says tight end Pat Freiermuth, who as a freshman caught eight touchdown passes last season, is pretty cut-and-dried.

“Definitely the leadership roles,” Freiermuth said at the end of spring drills. “We’re inexperienced, I think you can say. We don’t really have that game-time experience. In practice Coach Franklin does a great job simulating game-time situations. When we get more reps in practice, we’ll be fine.”

RETURNING LION LEADERS

The Nittany Lions’ No. 1 leader will undoubtedly be senior linebacker Cam Brown, who was thrown into the fire as a freshman when he played 75 snaps at Michigan in 2016 and has grown steadily since. After contemplating declaring for the NFL Draft, Brown stepped forward in the spring as the team’s definitive leader. The coach who knows him best agrees.

“I would think he’s stepped into that role,” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry said after the Blue-White Game. “That’s what he wanted for himself.”

Of the Top 15 players with the most career starts on the 2018 squad, Brown is just one of four who return this season, with 14. The other three are Reid (27) and offensive linemen Steven Gonzalez (29) and Will Fries (20).

You can add punter Gillikin to that list as well. He’s been a key special teams component since his freshman season, as a kicker, holder and leader. Along with departed two-time captains Trace McSorley and Nick Scott — leaders extraordinaire — Gillikin was a team co-captain in 2018. Huge understatement: McSorley and Scott will be missed.

“It’s definitely tough,” Freiermuth admitted. “They’re great leaders. They are great people we looked up because they were knew what they were doing, they’re veterans. They were out there for a long time.”

Brown likes the group of potential successors.

“There are many options, a lot of guys have stepped up right now...Jan Johnson, Garrett Taylor…” Brown says. “Shaka Toney has stepped up and been a leader on the D-line. Lamont Wade has had his vocal moments when he really wants to let everyone know how he feels. He’s steps up in practice and tells guys they need to get their energy together.”

“That’s the good thing about this year. I feel like we have a lot of people guys can look to and ask questions and for help.”

Both Franklin and Freiermuth have pointed to vocal wide receiver K.J. Hamler, now in his third year in the squad, as a team leader, while the tight end offered a few others as well:

“I think Cam Brown is doing a great job. Obviously, Blake as special teams captain. There are a lot of guys — Jan, Garrett, Mike Menet, Will Fries. I’d include myself. We’re all stepping into that leadership role. We’re young. We have to find leadership at different positions and in different ways.

“For me, I try to actually lead by example. I’m not a big vocal guy in the locker room. I just do what I need to do. When I speak, I think kids really listen to me because I don’t speak a lot and when I do, they can tell I’m fired up about something so they’re going to listen and give it their all.”

Brown sees the youth of the Nittany Lions as a plus in some ways. They are looser, with more players ready to step forward into vacant key roles.

“It’s a little more childish, more jokes and things like that,” Brown said. “Everybody has a mature approach to it and does the right things at the right time. The guys are just hanging out more and cracking more jokes. There’s more of a bond, actually, with all the younger guys. There aren’t as many cliques and things like that.

“It’s not like when I was younger and there was a group of seniors ahead of you. I had BBell (linebacker Brandon Bell, a 2016 captain and a wise and wily vet); we were close, but it wasn’t as close as it is for me and Micah (Parsons) now. The chemistry has changed. I was able to establish myself as a leader and help guys like Lance (Dixon) and Brandon (Smith) come along. Even Micah, giving them tips. Jan and I are getting our communication a lot better. Everything is starting to gel together.”

PSU CLIQUES THAT CLICKED

Of course, cliques can be perceived as important leadership groups. Veteran cliques can make things click.

In recent memory, at Penn State that’s worked out well: Michael Mauti and Michel Zordich, who kept Penn State going in 2012; the impact of the Supa Six; the mature group of great players and great character people — Bell, Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, Jason Cabinda, Grant Haley — that led PSU to a 22-5 record in 2016-17; and the McSorley/Scott group of leaders from NOVA and the DMV that led the Nittany Lions.

Franklin was blessed with some very strong leaders, as well, when he arrived at Penn State in 2014; the strong character and steady leadership of such captains as Miles Dieffenbach, Jesse Della Valle, Mike Hull and Ryan Keiser — all Joe Paterno recruits — was a core reason for that team’s ability to adjust to its fifth head coach in four years, keep it all together and secure a win in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Then there is the extreme example of Penn State back in 1986; Paterno had 14 fifth-year seniors who, emboldened by an Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma, came back to lead the Nittany Lions to their second national title in five seasons.

2019 CAPTAINS

Franklin does not see a trio of captains leading the Nittany Lions this year, as was the case in 2018. Instead, the coach envisions a captain group of at least a half-dozen, a formula he historically favors. Here’s his history of naming team captains as a head coach:

Vanderbilt — five in 2011, eight in 2012, eight in 2013.

Penn State — seven in 2014, six in 2015, three in 2016, eight in 2017, three in 2018.

As Franklin noted at the start of spring drills, “I do think one of the things that I know I want to do this year and moving forward, we'd always gone with two captains on offense, two captains on defense, two captains on special teams.

“Talking to the team, in our off-season studies and in conversations, we only had the three captains last year — and I know that's a model that a lot of people use — but I feel like we need more. We need more of that strong leadership, more captains, more players that can relate to more captains.

“You’re going to have some guys that relate to some groups. We’ve got a diverse team, so I think that’s going to be important, if we have the ability to go back to two captains on offense, defense and special teams. I think there’s a lot of value there.”

But, as Franklin will admit, that leadership process is still a work in progress. It is not a plug-and-play kind of thing, not like it has been in his first five years at Penn State.

Finding, nurturing, empowering and entrusting player leadership in 2019 may be James’ Job No. 1:

“But we’re going to have to develop it,” he said back in March, “because we are going to be young. But we’re going to be talented.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and 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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