Penn State Football’s Upperclassmen Talk Culture, Goal Setting
A handful of Penn State’s upperclassmen fielded questions before last Saturday’s Lift for Life at Holuba Hall. Here are some of the highlights.
Senior tight end Mike Gesicki, who was recently named to the John Mackey Award watch list, said it feels like just yesterday the team was walking off the field in Pasadena, its dream of winning the Rose Bowl thwarted by a last-second field goal. He believes the mentality James Franklin instilled upon his arrival immediately produced a winning attitude.
“It all starts with coach Franklin upstairs,” Gesicki said. “He came in here with a mindset of building this program up and getting this culture back to the way it was. I think he’s done a phenomenal job. Once you’ve finally got a full team to buy into that, you guys saw the on-field product last season.”
That on-field product was arguably the most exciting in college football over the final 10 games of the year, as the Nittany Lions averaged 41 points per contest during that 9-1 stretch in which they won the 2016 Big Ten Championship in spectacular fashion and barely fell to the USC Trojans.
Hard-hitting safety Marcus Allen chimed in on Franklin’s ability to bring out the best in his players and the reason why he’s always at the front of the pack with his coach in the tunnel.
“This is a bond that you can’t break,” Allen said. “That’s why we lock arms. That’s something deeper than walking out just trying to be cool.”
Graduate senior offensive tackle Andrew Nelson discussed how Penn State has grown in its motivation and attention to detail since Franklin got here prior to the 2014 season.
“A team really becomes special when the coaches don’t even really have to coach anymore, when the players take the team over and the players become the leaders and the players dictate and drive that culture of excellence,” Nelson said.
The Hershey native suffered his second season-ending knee injury against Maryland last October, but hopes to be back in the lineup at some point this fall. Nelson said he, Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, and Jason Cabinda sat down with the true freshmen last week for a no B.S. question and answer session.
“It was their opportunity to ask us whatever they wanted,” Nelson said. “They wanted the truth; the truth about Penn State, the truth about college football, the truth about everything we’ve experienced here. No coaches, no faculty, no staff, none of that.”
Nelson and the captains took it upon themselves to organize summer workouts, seeing as the coaching staff has very limited contact with the team until preseason camp in August. Every Monday and Wednesday the skill players work on 7-on-7, while the linemen are inside Holuba going through position drills.
“We’re setting our goals high on Big Ten and national championships, and then we’re gonna put that in the back of our minds and take it day by day, focusing on whatever it takes that day, whatever it takes that game, to reach our goals,” Nelson said.
It was graduated linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White who originally spoke up and told the team it was silly not to at least talk about its big-picture goals before the season. Come September, Franklin’s motto of “one game at a time” will kick in, but placing a focus on the ultimate dream has plenty of merit during the preparation phase.
Senior cornerback Grant Haley, who’s etched in Penn State history forever thanks to his scoop-and-score against Ohio State, mentioned he’s been impressed with freshman Lamont Wade’s quick transition to the speed of the college game.
“He’s having fun, he’s got that swagger to him now which is good,” Haley said. “He’s confident, had a good spring, so I’m excited to see what he does coming into camp and the fall.”
Haley is the unquestioned leader of a veteran secondary that will feature five upperclassmen who have logged extensive playing time. He’s taken freshman corner Donovan Johnson under his wing this summer as part of the team’s “big brother program.” The Atlanta native knows it’s up to him to carry on the tradition of lending a helping hand to the younger defensive backs once his college career comes to a close.
“When I leave here, it’s on me to help them learn and grow as players as well. Even when I’m gone, I have to leave my lasting impact. That’s what I look forward to,” Haley said.
Redshirt senior Curtis Cothran is a great example of what happens when a player is allowed to develop on his own time and not thrust into action out of necessity. The hulking Newtown, Pa., standout arrived at Penn State in 2013 as a lean defensive end, but has grown into a versatile 6-foot-5, 280-pound tackle on the interior of Sean Spencer’s line.
He thinks this year’s “Wild Dogs,” as Spencer calls them, could grow into the nation’s best top-to-bottom defensive line. Cothran, who’s again projected to start opposite classmate Parker Cothren, singled out a few players he’s excited about that had strong offseasons.
“Shareef Miller, for one. He’s definitely making great strides and he’s gonna [have] a big impact this year. Also, Torrence Brown. He’s a freak of nature. He does certain things on the field that are crazy,” Cothran said. “Inside, Kevin Givens is a destroyer. Rob Windsor — big cheese we call him — he’s definitely gonna make a big impact.”
For clarification’s sake, Windsor is the lone Nittany Lion on the roster from Wisconsin. Cothran also highlighted freshman defensive tackle Fred Hansard as someone who’s put in extensive work in the few short weeks he’s been on campus. Cothran enjoys the process of showing underclassmen the ropes.
“I love getting these young guys right, sharing my words of wisdom and struggles I’ve gone through, making sure they don’t go through the same,” Cothran said. “Anything that they need, I got them.”