Penn State Football: New Faces Step into the Spotlight as Next Chapter Begins
No matter how good you were in high school, no matter how highly recruited you might have been or how many camps you were invited to, the bright lights of college football are different.
Suddenly everything is harder: classes, workouts and the competition. Nothing comes easy, and once your freshman season at Penn State ends, the media is ready to ask about everything you do for the next few years [Penn State football policy doesn't allow for freshmen interviews.] You aren't watching interviews happen anymore, you're in the middle of them.
Welcome to the spotlight.
For different players, the spotlight means different things. In the case of Sean Clifford that means no longer being the quarterback of the future. It means being the quarterback of now. It means charity events, like Friday evening's Lift For Life. It means shaking hands, taking pictures and being the face of a program.
It means a whole lot more than what happens on the field. You were a guy, now you're THE guy.
"You really can't prepare for it, you've just got to be yourself," Clifford said on Friday. "I like to think of myself as someone who you can talk to, I love engaging with fans, I love talking to people because how I figure it, it's only going to happen for a certain amount of time. So in the end, there's going to be a day when nobody really cares who I am, so if I can brighten someone's day, that's the life I kinda want to live."
For players like sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth, the spotlight means stepping up and doing it again and doing it better. It means going from a pleasant surprise one year to meeting even higher expectations the next. It means answering tough questions when things go poorly, and sharing the credit when things go well. And sure, there are worse things than being a team's rising star, but Freiermuth won't be the first or last player to miss the year he spent away from the cameras.
"I loved it," Freiermuth said with a laugh. "I liked it because it was a different thing off my plate. I didn't have to worry about if I'm going to say this, if I'm going to say that. I could just focus on school and football and it was cool just having it off my plate. Obviously I didn't expect that much but now I'm expecting it and I'm continuing to work for it and continuing to progress."
In the eyes of defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, getting back in front of the cameras is a reward in its own way. After a solid freshman year he's a name to watch, a player to talk to, someone fans and teammates will expect big things from.
So he too will miss that year when all he had to worry about was football, but talking to the media usually means you're doing something right. And if answering a few questions is the price for being good at your craft, Mustipher is happy to pay it.
"You've got so many things to focus on, so many things that you're learning," Mustipher said of his freshman year. "Not taking to the media, it's a good thing. You see guys interviews and you know your time will come, but I wasn't worried about that. I was trying to get the playbook down, trying to get my schoolwork down. I had things to focus on."
The attention he gets now as the season closes in?
"It's a testament for hard hard work. You work hard for stuff, you work hard to be on the field and you work hard for the recognitions. So it's just people expecting a lot out of me but that's been me my whole life. My parents instilled hard work in me and expecting big things out of me and I expect big things out of myself, bigger than anyone could expect for me. So it's noting new and I'm happy about it and it's time to go."
And for players like running back Ricky Slade, questions mean your time has come. No more Saquon Barkley, no more Miles Sanders, no more waiting, no more recruiting, no more anticipation.
So sure, he — like everyone else — enjoyed not having to face the noise, but he's also ready for his shot and everything that comes with it both on and off the field.
"It was fun, it was stress free," Slade said of his freshman year out of the media spotlight. "It was good to just not to talk to anybody. To play a game and just leave and go home. It got me ready, we had media training, so my whole freshman year when I couldn't talk I was talking to my teammates and stuff and it got me prepared for this moment, it was nice to have a break but I'm ready to come back and talk to you guys."
Ricky Slade rolls off the bench after finishing a set at Lift for Life on July 12, 2019 at Holuba Hall. Photo by Mikey Mandarino
For Penn State, its young rising stars stepping in front of the camera is emblematic of a few things. It's a new chapter within the walls of the Lasch Building, the Nittany Lions who wrote the story of the last few years are largely on to bigger and better things. Now it's up to a new crop of players and stars to write what happens next.
Their play will speak louder than their words, but as many of them stepped in front of the camera for the first time in their Penn State careers on Friday, that new chapter began.
Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Fred Hansard was up and working out at Lift for Life. An injury against Michigan State ended Hansard’s 2018 season early, and his return to action will bring even more depth to the Penn State defensive line. Photo by Mikey Mandarino