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Penn State Football Utilizing Outback Bowl As Building Point For 2022 Season

Bowl season is a transitory time for most college football teams. With the building trend of starters opting out to protect their NFL Draft stock, coach turnover, and the long period of downtime after bowl selection, each program is forced to prepare uniquely.

This year’s Penn State squad is no exception. Friday evening, starting linebacker Brandon Smith announced his decision to sit out of the Outback Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft — perhaps the first of many Nittany Lion stars. The team also lost its defensive coordinator Brent Pry to a head coaching vacancy at Virginia Tech, replacing him with former Miami head coach Manny Diaz.

During a set of team media calls ahead of the Outback Bowl, Penn State head coach James Franklin highlighted how important it is that his staff and players consider this bowl berth.

“It’s the end of this season and it’s still an opportunity for us to go out and play the way we want to play,” Franklin said. “It’s still an opportunity for players to show on a national stage what they’re capable of doing, not only for Penn State, but also for their futures.”

Franklin also noted that a balance that must be struck at the Outback Bowl between finishing off the 2021 season strong and preparing for the upcoming 2022 season.

“Some young players [are] getting some more significant opportunities to give them some momentum going into the offseason,” Franklin said.

Returning co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter put further emphasis on evaluating and experimenting with younger players.

“Coach Franklin has done a great job with the setup of initial practices where we got a lot of young guys reps,” Poindexter said. “We haven’t gotten to the bowl site yet, so there’s a lot of guys getting work on the grass that normally wouldn’t usually get work on the grass in a normal week.”

Franklin reported that Poindexter will call the defensive plays at the Outback Bowl, while Manny Diaz gets acquainted with his new position. Poindexter explained how the staff decided to navigate that acclimation period in a way that productively develops players for Diaz and the defense next year.

“Once this bowl game is over, then we’ll start the transition to Coach Diaz’s defense,” Poindexter said. “But right now, we’re still doing what we’ve been doing with Coach Pry. I think the kids are comfortable with it. A lot of these young kids are getting the chance to really show us what they have and show us what they can do.”

Some of the Nittany Lions’ defensive stalwarts echoed Poindexter’s enthusiasm on the preparation process.

Although sophomore linebacker Curtis Jacobs played significant time this season, the Outback Bowl will serve as his first chance to play in the collegiate postseason, after Penn State forewent bowl eligibility in Jacobs’ freshman year.

“It’s big for me. It’s a way to end the season as a champion,” Jacobs said. “Me, as a competitor, I’m gonna try to do that, because that’s the most important thing: winning. It’s gonna be a great experience. A lot of the guys didn’t get to travel all year. They didn’t get to come down and have fun, so I feel like it’ll be a good experience.”

For other Nittany Lions, the ongoing bowl preparation is business as usual, but with a couple weeks of extra time.

“Any time we strap up the helmets… it’s always a big deal,” Jonathan Sutherland said. “It doesn’t matter really what game is being played. Any time we have an opportunity to face an opponent, we’re gonna take pride in that and take the same approach we would to any other game.”

Senior linebacker Jesse Luketa, who announced his plans to play in this year’s Outback Bowl, shared Sutherland’s perspective.

“The way I perceive the bowl game is no different from how I perceive any other game,” Luketa said. “I’m gonna prepare the same way. Nothing changes. There’s nothing out of the ordinary. We got a game and we got a matchup and that’s that.”

Even with the excitement and motivation coming from the players, Franklin said convincing people that the bowls are important can bechallenging.

“You go on social media and there’s all types of information being sent out there about what’s important and what’s not. Some people call it rat poison,” Franklin said. “We try and eliminate as much distraction as we possibly can, but also be realistic about what’s going on and try to do everything we possibly can to put our players and our program in the best position to be successful.”

Reflecting on the changes college football has seen over the last decade, Franklin offered a solution: a large playoff expansion, something he’s talked about at length in the past.

“We’re talking about going to eight playoff spots or twelve playoff spots. In my mind, you make it as big as possible,” Franklin said. “If we’re gonna expand the playoffs, we should expand it as big as we possibly can, to allow more teams the opportunity to play for the title.”

Franklin’s comments were not exclusively on getting more teams access to the playoff, but also on the ongoing deemphasis of bowl games in general.

“[It’s] also to be able to protect those bowl games by including them in that process as much as possible,” Franklin said. “Every time I turn on my phone, there’s somebody opting out from what we would all consider… big time, significant bowl games.”

Per his typical policy, Franklin refused to comment or speculate on any individual player’s plans for the bowl game. Though if the players’ and coaches’ statements were any indication, it appears that the team is fully prepared to assimilate younger talent into the rotations if needed.

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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