2016 Proves Penn State’s Fall Fortunes are in Players’ Summer Hands
College football games are played in the fall.
But they are often won in the summer.
Like right now — during Lift For Life and Arts Festival Week in Happy Valley.
Like in The Summer of 2016, when the Nittany Lions’ leaders knew they had something special. Because they made it so.
This coming weekend is one of huge festivities, wrapped around a summer of boredom and a mandatory weekly eight hours (capped by the NCAA) of strength and conditioning work and film study. (Players can spend two of those eight hours studying film with their position coach.)
Those eight hours are key, and the guiding light during that time is Penn State strength and conditioning guru Dwight Galt, who has his finger on the pulse of the players as lifters and leaders and lollygaggers, while at the same time having a direct pipeline to James Franklin, to keep his longtime boss in the loop.
Those Galt Hours are great, and the team’s NFL Combined success each spring is strong evidence of that.
But it’s really the other 160 hours a week — from early June through the start of official team summer drills at the start of August — when the mettle of a team is forged, when the players are ostensibly on their own. That is when a squad’s leadership and maturity take their firmest hold under the direction of its veterans.
A few summers back, veteran Penn State O-lineman Andrew Nelson promised that his team’s leadership would carry the day come fall.
“We talked to Big Deeg (Galt) and said, ‘We have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to be doing this stuff all the time if we want to be the team we want to be,’ ” Nelson said. “As veterans, as guys who are respected among our peers, we have a responsibility to say, ‘Hey, this is how it’s going to be done.’ ”
That same summer, wise old head DaeSean Hamilton echoed what Nelson was saying.
“We realized the past two or three years that guys were not taking that kind of stuff seriously,” said Hamilton, who once estimated that he caught up to 200 balls in every summer workout. “For some people, they thought the summer didn’t matter because they could turn it on when camp came around. That’s not the type of mindset we need. We want to take it seriously.
“The workouts can get drawn-out throughout the whole summer. We want guys to stay intense and not lose interest while we’re out there trying to get better. It’s up to us to make sure they stay attentive and take it seriously and stay on the same page.”
They spoke those words in July 2016.
The wisdom and work of Nelson and Hamilton, and their teammates, led to a nine-game winning streak, an 11-3 record, a Big Ten title and an appearance in one of the most thrilling Rose Bowls in college football history.
Brian Gaia, the former undersized D-lineman turned undersized center, called it that July. At the Big Ten media days in Chicago with teammates Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman White, Gaia said the 2016 season was going to be a special one, despite coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons.
Why? Because of what he had seen that summer.
“We’re guaranteed to break through,” Gaia said in an interview on BTN. “We’ve been working so hard all summer, just grinding – off-season, winter, spring ball… As a team, we’ve all taken ownership of our own responsibility to put that work to take that next step to the Big Ten championship.”
WHAT BROWN CAN DO
The 2019 Big Ten media days roll around next Thursday and Friday, a signal that the bulk of the summer work performed by the players (both supervised and not) will have been done. The hay will be in the barn. It will be interesting to hear what Penn State’s representatives in Chicago — vets John Reid, Blake Gillikin and Cam Brown — have to say about the work that their teammates put in this summer.
After the Blue-White Game, Brown shared what he had in mind for his linebackers group once the summer hit.
“I’ll definitely be pulling the linebackers together and making sure everybody is getting ready for camp and making strides where they need to,” promised Brown, who said group texts is his preferred MO.
“It’s an easy option. You tell the guys, you put in the group chat, and make sure everybody knows what’s going on. You make sure guys respond, and if they don’t — well, they might have something they have to do. That’s pretty much how you gauge how important things are.
“Linebackers have their own group chat. And then, of course, you have the one without the coaches and the one without the coaches. We definitely talk. That’s how you build your chemistry with the guys and get them to be a family — talking like that, and on Instagram and Snapchat. Even though it’s not bonding physically, you still share a lot.”
On the summer practice field, that leadership is manifested in player-led 7-on-7 scrimmages, position work and drills. Off the field, it’s the older guys making sure the younger ones don’t do dumb things — whether it’s under-age drinking at summer bashes downtown or sneaking dogs or charcoal grills into their dorm rooms. (Sh)it like that happens. The best teams police themselves before others step in.
WHO'S THE BOSS?
Reminds me of a story a former veteran Penn State coach once told me. The coach was getting on a certain lollygagging underclassman. A veteran linebacker went over to the coach and asked him to let it go.
“You coach the team and we’ll handle the players,” the vet said. And they did.
Current Nittany Lion cornerback coach Terry Smith and former Penn State co-captain puts it this way:
“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.”