October Revival: Penn State’s surging football program was hit uniquely hard by the pandemic shutdown; now, the Nittany Lions have a chance to resume their national rise
James Franklin was about to be interviewed on the Big Ten Network during the celebratory return of football.
He shot a text message to his All-America tight end candidate.
"Hey, jump on with me."
So as Franklin was being interviewed, junior Pat Freiermuth popped onto the screen behind his coach. It was perfect timing.
Freiermuth not only solidified his standing with the Nittany Lions during this most uncertain virus pandemic, he provided more positive light for a program that has struggled to keep accelerating at its impressive pre-virus pace – struggled more than many may realize.
Who knows exactly what this season revival will look like come the end of October, but it certainly helps to have one of the nation’s top tight ends to help you through it – which didn’t seem so certain even a few days before.
There was talk that Freiermuth would become the Lions’ second star player to leave this Top 10 team to avoid the college COVID-19 hassles and prepare early for the NFL. Generational linebacker Micah Parsons announced that he was going even before the Big Ten fall season had been postponed in mid-August.
A masked Freiermuth stood behind Franklin, espousing his program loyalty at a hopeful but still shaky time.
"I'm just excited to play football again for Penn State, and I can't wait for the season,” he said.
"There were some conversations going on between me and coach, some open dialogue. Just talking about everything, the pros and cons (of leaving early). But at the end of the day I came back for a reason: my last year to play at Penn State, to play with my brothers ..."
This had been built to be Penn State’s most talented and deepest football team since Franklin arrived in State College. Six years of building, to be exact.
Now, a lot of that will be tested in most unforeseen ways, starting with these nine games in nine weeks. The new season will run from the weekend of October 24 through a Big Ten title game on December 19.
That stretch will signal how this team will not only recover from the pandemic shutdown, but also push ahead to new ground for the second time in a decade.
While every college program in the nation has been forced to deal with serious consequences of COVID-19 – from postponed and canceled games to revenue losses and player defections – Penn State has been hit uniquely hard.
That impact stretches from recruiting to coaching transition to ruined momentum.
The concerns began as soon as COVID-19 started wiping away workouts, practices, and competitions in March. While the Lions’ 2020 expectations were brighter than ever under Franklin, part of that hinged on the hands-on assimilation of the team’s three new assistant coach hires and their re-tuned offense.
That was a goal of a spring season that never came.
Recruiting struggles then ensued with on-campus visits prohibited. Then Parsons, quite possibly the top defender in the nation, announced he was leaving.
Then the Big Ten season was postponed indefinitely – one of the most important Penn State seasons since the program was rocked by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions. A true proving season. The Lions finally appeared fully-equipped to battle equally with Ohio State and the rest of nation’s top-tier teams to break into the College Football Playoff.
During the shutdown, Franklin repeatedly questioned a lack of communication from Big Ten leaders while touting his program’s impressive safety and health measures that would allow for games to be played.
That corresponded with a vocal segment of Big Ten coaches, parents, and players pressing league officials to reverse their decision. From Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’ online petition, to state legislators calling for the season to be played, to parents rallying outside of Big Ten headquarters – to President Donald Trump calling Commissioner Kevin Warren to offer support in reinstating the season.
On September 11, less than a week before the season was recovered, Franklin pushed for answers during a university podcast: “If there’s one or two teams who don’t’ feel like they can pull off all the policies and procedures in place, let them opt out. That shouldn’t stop the other 12 schools that can make it work from playing. It’s too important. A lot of times people think it’s about the athletic department, it’s about the universities. It’s about the student-athletes, it’s about my players.”
He knew three of the five Power 5 conferences were driving ahead with their seasons, meaning that his program could fall behind.
It goes beyond the games on the field, too.
Franklin and his staff have rebuilt Penn State’s roster through dynamic but also diligent, step-by-step recruiting. Franklin spends more face-to-face time with visiting recruits than most other Power 5 head coaches, according to recruiting analysts.
That’s part of his unique sell of Penn State. And that has not been possible for six months, which parallels the program’s struggles in finishing its 2021 recruiting class. The group was ranked only eighth or ninth in the Big Ten and in the mid-30s nationally by national experts in September, stunningly low for Franklin.
They’ve recently missed on top targets, including Pennsylvania 5-star offensive tackle Nolan Rucci to Wisconsin.
"I've thought this for a while – I don't know of any other Top 20 program that has been impacted by the pandemic and not being able to make visits as harshly as Penn State," national recruiting analyst Brian Dohn said on a recent episode of the 247Sports Football Recruiting Podcast.
"Their big sell, and the coaches do a great job with all that stuff, is the feeling kids get when they get onto campus and they get within that community.
"Penn State, even though they get kids from all over, their recruiting base is more regional (than programs like Notre Dame and Ohio State), within four hours of campus. It doesn't matter when you go to Penn State. You can go to that wrestling match in December that is sold out and you get the feel for it. You go to the White Out Game, which is always against Ohio State or Michigan, or some big-time game, where the atmosphere is absolutely ridiculous. There is so much to it."
Penn State also has had to work against the bad timing of coaching changes.
While the Lions appeared to make strong winter hires in new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and offensive line coach Phil Trautwein, neither has been able to develop up-close, personal relationships with players and recruits as expected.
They also needed a stronger landing foundation for new receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield. Consider that the transient assistant was put in charge of the most debatable position on the roster – the biggest potential weak spot heading into the season.
Jahan Dotson, for example, is the only returning wide receiver with at least 25 receptions. No one else had more than nine.
On defense, the Lions must uphold their lofty preseason ranking with impressive talent, but little experience at linebacker. The most proven players, Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks, have been only key reserves so far.
That, of course, does not discourage defensive coordinator Brett Pry.
“These guys are long and fast and explosive; they got a good mixed set of talents, and there’s a lot of competition, there really is, and there’s still some age in there,” Pry said.
While the most promising new standout is 6-foot-3 Brandon Smith, the most intriguing could be rookie Curtis Jacobs, a borderline 5-star talent from the McDonough School in Maryland.
"He’s an exciting guy,” Pry said of Jacobs. “He’s so versatile. He’s a wideout, he’s a safety, he’s a rush guy, he’s a 'backer at the second level. In camp, watching him go toe-to-toe against Micah and Jesse and those guys, and win some of those battles; he’s confident, he’s got a good football IQ.”
Those kind of players, and this new, abbreviated season, can help smooth some of the pandemic frustration, and potentially keep Penn State rising.
The future is still bright, if but delayed. The 2022 recruiting class, in contrast, is piling up members and is enjoying one of the nation’s best starts. Penn State’s six early verbal commitments (five on offense) rank behind only the classes of LSU and Ohio State.
First comes the effort on the field, though – the Lions preparing for their first game since the Cotton Bowl 10 months before.
“Our guys have handled it extremely well,” Franklin said of his players and the pandemic restrictions. “Our practices have been good, but now I think we can take it to a whole other level.”
Frank Bodani has covered Penn State sports for the York Daily Record/York Sunday News since 1994.