Who is Penn State right now — and who will it be in 2018?
On the field, we will soon see.
Off the field, it’s a tougher question.
Who’s in charge, whose locker room is it and how has it all changed since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley — 1,692 days ago?
Let the players and coaches tell you, in their own words (gleaned from in-person interviews over the past month).
Call it the Nine Testaments, King James version:
1. WHOSE LOCKER ROOM IS IT?
Terry Smith and Franklin agree. A great team is run by its players. Smith has a unique perspective and vantage point. He’s the assistant head coach, cornerbacks coach and co-captain of Penn State’s 1991 team that went 11-2 and finished No. 3 in the nation.
Terry Smith: “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.”
James Franklin: “The best teams are player-led and player-driven, and not by coaches. I think we’re really starting to get to that point.”
Fifth-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye: “Whose locker room is it? I guess the older guys in the locker room: Me, Trace (McSorley), Koa Farmer, Shareef Miller, Mark Allen, all the older guys. Just kind of leading by example, all the younger guys, seeing what we've done in the past years and wanting to get to that point so they just kind of follow in our footsteps. I think we do a good job of leading that way.”
2. FIVE (YEAR) GUYS
It is a small and very tight-knit group of players who are in their fifth and their final season: Allen, Farmer, McSorley, Oruwariye, Nick Scott, Charlie Shuman, Johnathon Thomas, DeAndre Thompson, Kyle Vasey, Jason Vranac and Chasz Wright.
Many are from the DMV — and others are so tight with that bunch, like Oruwariye and Farmer, they might as well be. Most are mostly chill, good students, with undergraduate degrees already, with smarts about school, life and football. McSorley and Scott are both captains for a second consecutive season; junior punter Blake Gillikin is the third co-captain for 2018.
Quarterback Trace McSorley, 22-5 as a starter: “Me, Koa, Amani, Mark and Nick are all roommates. We definitely have a special bond. That includes guys like DeAndre and Chasz. They are guys who we all went through things with — the 7-6 seasons, the times when it was really tough, the things we had to fight through when Coach Franklin was first here.”
Koa Farmer, who has bounced between safety and linebacker: “As one of those five-year guys, a lot of the younger guys are looking up to you. You can’t look out for yourself, you need to be a leader for the whole team and the guys behind you. You have to be there for your teammates. Coming in, going through the system, is important. My guys were Adrian (Amos) and Jordan Lucas, Mike Hull and BBell (Brandon Bell) and Nyeem (Wartman-White). I’m that guy now. The guys are now looking up to me. It’s fun.”
Terry Smith: “Nick (Scott) is a returning captain. He is the voice of our defense. His leadership is unparalleled on the team. He speaks like a coach. He commands the locker room. … He extends the coaches’ message to the guys and runs that locker room.”
3. WHAT DOESN'T KILL US, MAKES US STRONGER
McSorley remembers the early struggles, when Penn State had back-to-back 7-6 seasons in 2014-15, with a ton of backbiting, among the players and even on the staff. Others had their own, individual challenges. The unquestioned leader on the field and the No. 1 player who also sets the tone off it, McSorley says he thinks the younger players understand the struggles, the strife and the tough rebound after the scandal.
Trace McSorley: “A lot of the younger guys weren’t here for that; they came into what was already established. Being part of the group of guys who had to go through some tough times, I think we’ve developed a close bond. That’s something where we are installing that standard and continue to build on what we’ve done the past couple of years instead of taking a step back. We’ve done a really good job. We have a really good balance of leaders on offense and defense who know what it took to get from Point A to where we are right now.”
DeAndre Thompkins, wide receiver and the No. 5-ranked punt returner in the nation in 2017: “I took that punch on the chin and learned from it — going from a redshirt freshman who dropped a couple of punts in big games to being one of the top punt returners in the country. It’s a good example of taking something that had been negative, then flipping it and making it a positive.
“There are so many things I’ve had to endure in terms of adversity, of finding out who I am and learning from a lot of people. Over the course of my five years at Penn State, I saw a lot of people in front of me who went on and did great things. And there are some who were not as fortunate. You learn a lot about life and what you’re blessed with. The list would be five, six pages long if I covered how much I have learned and changed.”
John Reid, a senior cornerback who missed all of 2017 after knee surgery: “I got a different perspective from the sidelines. Being with the coaches on the headsets on every play, learned why they called the things that they did. When you’re on the field, you wonder why certain calls are made. But now I understand why.
“As a person, I’m pretty much always the same. I don’t let life’s circumstances totally change who I am. I always feel like I’m on the edge — being able to play that way, being able to be a leader that way. Even as a freshman or a sophomore, I was always open to speaking my opinion. As a freshman, you have to earn the respect of people — but I feel like I did that quickly, based on my work ethic. As far as being a leader, I don’t think that’s changed.”
4. SELLING AND BUYING
Safety Nick Scott: “The biggest change from Year 1 to Year 5 is the culture we have and the strength of our relationships. You’ve heard this before, but the first year we came in we had a lot of guys who had a lot of different relationships at some point, so it was hard to get some real buy-in into what Coach Franklin was trying to get done. This year was the first we had a whole roster full of guys who only have heard Coach Franklin’s message. The culture, the buy-in are unbelievable because we have guys at the top who have heard only Coach Franklin’s message the past five years. And that goes all of the way down to the bottom, to the youngest guys.
“I can’t tell you the day it changed. But I think it was apparent to everybody that when we knew we were on the same page was definitely our Big Ten championship season. I’m not talking just about that game, but how we approached every game after Michigan. We were hearing a lot of outside noise. The way we banded together as a team and just played for us and took it one day at a time, that’s when it really started to meld.”
Trace McSorley: “The younger players “do appreciate what we have built. They come in and have bought into the program we’ve built, that Coach Franklin has built, and his message. It makes it easier when guys are hearing one consistent message than hearing three or four, which happened with guys from years before due to multiple coaching changes. Guys coming in hearing one message makes it a lot easier, with the buy-in and continuing what we’re doing.”
5. THE RIGHT FIT?
Penn State’s depth chart is bottom-heavy. Seventeen true freshmen have earned a spot on Franklin’s first depth chart of the season, released on Tuesday. They’re clearly talented, but do they fit in?
Nick Scott: “Coach Franklin can recruit. That’s no secret. He’s always brought in a lot of athletes here. Watching these guys is impressive. I don’t think we have any young guys who don’t have the ability to play here. It’s been impressive to watch. It’s been consistent. We’ve always brought in a lot of talent.”
Terry Smith: “We’re recruiting very well. We have a high hit rate. We have guys who work very hard at it, and that begins at the top with Coach Franklin. He emphasizes getting the right players who fit, not necessarily the best players all the time. That’s what we work a tremendous amount of time on — to find the perfect fit for Penn State. We want guys who fit the culture here, guys who once they are done playing ball, we’re proud of those guys as young men and what they aspire to be as they continue their lives.”
6. “DIFFERENT” LEADERS
There’s a subset of leaders — trend-setters, even — on the 2018 squad with a different vibe, and who are hardly conventional. It includes KJ Hamler, the 5-foot-9, 176-pound redshirt sophomore receiver who last played a real game in 2016; Vlad Hilling, a walk-on freshman kicker; and Gillikin, who is a punter and holder.
James Franklin: “I think our culture is really strong right now. I think our chemistry is really strong. I think our leadership is different in terms of we don't have a huge senior class and those types of things.
“Vlad Hilling may be one of the most popular players on our team. The perspective that he brings to our team, the attitude. I don't know if the guy has ever had a bad day in his life. He affects others around him, players and coaches, as well.
“KJ has been a really good leader. What I mean by that is maybe not the leader that you think of when I say that; but a guy that brings enthusiasm and energy to meetings and the locker room, similar to the way Marcus (Allen) did for four years for us."
Punter Blake Gillikin: “I bring a lot of perspective. I’ve been here for two years. A lot of our guys have been here for a lot longer than that. I pride myself on working as hard as I can off the field and gaining the respect from my teammates for what I do off the field and in the community. I think I bring an all-around perspective. We have two other great captains and possibly more coming in the fall. I didn’t used to be vocal. That’s where I have seen my leadership transform.”
7. STRONG AND SILENT TYPES
No unit is more important than the offensive line. The Nittany Lions’ group here is a veteran one, tight-knit, talented, a bit interchangeable and led by a salt-of-the-earth Pennsylvania guy, savvy Matt Limegrover. Their leadership — and performance — is key to a successful 2018.
Offensive tackle Will Fries: “I think (redshirt junior) Ryan Bates has done a good job stepping up as a leader with the departure of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon last year. Guys like Chasz have been a leader and Charlie Shuman has helped out the younger guys. He's a pretty vocal guy. When things are down, he's kind of the guy that gets people going. He leads by example, his work ethic on the field and stuff like that.”
Offensive tackle Chasz Wright: “After my freshman year, I’ve been able to find myself and be me. I have all my friends here with me — my O-line friends. …The thing that we have going for us, that keeps us going right now, is our relationship with each other. We are all cool with everybody. Everybody has the same goal in mind, we’re on the same page. Our goal is to go out there and represent Penn State and do big things. We try to approach every day with the same positive attitude, in practice and in classes and with the little things — the rest will take care of itself.”
8. TRAINING DAYS
Franklin has a Leadership Council that in 2018 is comprised of 13 seniors, five juniors, three sophomores and three redshirt freshmen — 24 in all — that serves as a voice for the team in the decision-making process. Their role has changed, considerably, since 2014.
James Franklin: “Instead of having a strong senior class, where a bunch of guys who have been there are setting the tone for the whole organization — we have that — but we just have a lot of numbers. I see more guys comfortable taking an active role in leadership. I hear more coaching going on on the field. It may not be a senior, it may not be a junior, it may be a redshirt sophomore — guys who have been around who are comfortable enough now to speak up.
“We’ve changed the Leadership Council model. We have ‘Training On and Training Off.’ Training On during the season you don’t go out, you don’t go out to frats, you don’t go to bars, you don’t any of those types of thing until we take Training Off. It’s like, ‘Saturday after the game, go out and enjoy yourself, be a regular student. Nothing crazy, but go be a regular student, be like every other student on campus. But no issues, no problems. ‘
“We always controlled that as coaches. We did it my whole time at Vanderbilt, we’ve done it here and all the way back to Maryland (where Franklin was an assistant in 2000-04 and 2008-10). But we now have handed that over to the players. So the captains and the leadership council are running that. They’re deciding when training is on and they’re deciding when training is off.
“There’s more ownership and those guys are doing a really good job. Obviously, when we’re talking about the bars we’re talking about the guys who are over 21. But even those guys who are over 21, they’re not supposed to be doing that stuff in-season. It’s one of our core values, which is sacrifice. You have to give something up.
“I expect that to go to a whole another level for us, because it is one thing when I’m saying it and it’s another thing when (all the) guys on the Leadership Council are saying it and they’re enforcing it. I see things like that happening.”
9. NUMBER 9.
All roads lead to No. 9 — Trace McSorley.
Offensive coordinator/QB coach Ricky Rahne, who recruited McSorley out of high school as far back as 2012: “From the day Trace stepped on campus, he's been the same kid, very driven, very motivated. Great teammate. Great leader. I've been ecstatic with him since the day he got here.”