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James Franklin, Penn State Entering New Season With Confidence After Enduring 2020’s Challenges

James Franklin took the podium at Big Ten media days Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium, a familiar sight for Nittany Lion fans.

Last time Penn State football was here, it was celebrating its 2016 Big Ten Championship victory, which included a legendary performance by Trace McSorley and an unbelievable second-half effort by the Nittany Lions’ defense. Franklin didn’t shy away from the fact that it’s his team’s goal to get right back there in 2021, especially after a subpar performance in 2020.

“That’s the goal for all of us,” Franklin said. “It’s to get back here and play in a way and a style that’s gonna give us the opportunity to win a Big Ten Championship, and then have an opportunity to represent the Big Ten and Penn State in the playoff.

“We understand what it takes to get here. But, at the end of the day, it’s ‘what have we done this year?’. Our approach is going to be very critical to that.”

With the 2021 season fast approaching, Penn State has a whole lot to improve upon from last season if it wants to build towards those lofty goals. The Nittany Lions opened the season 0-5 for the first time ever last year, and despite scrapping together four consecutive wins to finish the campaign, it was still highlighted by ugly offensive play and an uncharacteristically inconsistent defense.

It was brutal at times, but it’s not fair to consider the 4-5 record without mentioning the lack of several star players on either side of the ball, injuries throughout the season, and of course the challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of that added up to a historically difficult year for Penn State on and off the field, but Franklin feels those challenges are only making his team stronger in 2021.

“[Last year] reinforced some things that I realized and that I already knew,” Franklin said. “I’m a relational leader. I want to connect with people. I want to be face to face. I want to hug, scream, and yell. That’s who I am. Having every meeting, up to game five, over Zoom and with a mask on…. that had an effect.

“I think we’ll be better for it. It was painful on all of us and I get that, but I’m excited about where we’re headed and what we’re gonna do this year.”

With those 2020 lessons in mind, Franklin and his coaching staff now have a group of young weapons that took their lumps last fall. Jahan Dotson, for starters, is a force at wide receiver and a preseason candidate for the Maxwell Award. That’s not a bad target for third-year starter Sean Clifford to rely on, along with young pass-catchers Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith, plus tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson.

Franklin also noted that in Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Keyvone Lee, and Caziah Holmes, the Nittany Lions have “one of the most talented” running back rooms in the country. That’s all before even mentioning graduate transfer John Lovett, who totaled 1,763 yards and 18 scores during his four-year Baylor career.

The head coach also remains confident in Brent Pry and his defense. Jaquan Brisker leads a strong secondary group, while the Nittany Lions also have returning linebacker starters in Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks, and Jesse Luketa.

Those stars have a chance to test themselves right off the bat against Wisconsin at noon on Saturday, September 4. While it’s still several weeks away, Penn State remains locked in on the opportunity to set the record straight after the challenges they endured during last year’s season.

“We have had a countdown clock going on in our facility like we do every year,” Franklin said. “But I must admit, having Wisconsin’s logo up there has kind of raised the standard for our guys. They understand we better be ready to go come the first kick of the first game of the season.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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