There isn’t a team in the country quite like the Penn State Nittany Lions — for a multitude of reasons.
This year marks the first year since 2013 Penn State has had a full 85 scholarship allotment due to NCAA sanctions as a result of the 2012 child sex abuse scandal. For the past two seasons, the Nittany Lions had a reduced number of scholarships (75 in 2014 and 80 in 2015).
Now, for the first time in his tenure at Penn State, third-year head coach James Franklin is on equal footing with his coaching peers in the Big Ten, peers like Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines team that routed the Nittany Lions 49-10 this past Saturday.
Operating at a less-than-capacity scholarship level put Penn State in Division 1-AA territory as a result of the lack of scholarships. Yes, that’s right, a Big Ten team was forced to go against other Big Ten foes with less than the allotted amount of scholarships and was expected to compete.
However, with the recruiting Franklin and his staff have been able to pull off, the future is bright for a Penn State program looking to return to the glory it once had. With the second-youngest team in the FBS, the winning roar should return to Happy Valley in the near future, but it’s going to be a struggle to get there.
Where the Nittany Lions felt the scholarship loss the most is in their depth, more specifically quality depth. For the better part of the last two seasons, Penn State’s second and third teams have been filled with a combination of scholarship and walk-ons, leaving some positions in more dire straits than others.
The offensive line was the first to feel the impact. The o-line had been a source of struggle ever since Franklin took over and is just now showing marked improvement in its play.
But now injuries are causing problems because of that lack of depth. This year, the linebackers, in particular, have felt the wrath of the injury bug; two of Penn State’s starting linebackers are out indefinitely and one is out for the season. A backup linebacker is also out for the season.
There aren’t many teams in the country that can withstand the loss of two starting linebackers, let alone three like Penn State has been forced to do to start this season.
Throughout the sanctions and the adversity the Nittany Lions have faced on the injury front, Franklin continues to be optimistic looking forward.
“I also know in my heart, every single morning when I wake up and every single night that I go to bed the direction that we’re headed,” Franklin said. “And I think what happens a lot of times is people compare and contrast. Well, it’s hard to compare and contrast because of the situation we were in. Who are you going to compare that to? So, I get it, but I think it’s coming from a good place. It’s coming from a place of pride and love of Penn State and wanting to get back to those memories and those experiences that they look back so fondly on.”
Penn State might not yet be competitive against powerhouse teams such as Michigan or Ohio State, but the program refuses to be knocked down. This season will serve as a major help in regards to the development process. To continue that development, the team, coaches, fans and administrators must buy in to the process and that it will get the Nittany Lions back where they want to be sooner rather than later.
“I want everybody to take a deep breath,” Franklin said. “We’re going to continue loving these kids. We’re going to continue supporting these kids. We’re going to continue developing these kids, and I believe in my 22 years of experience that we’re heading in the right direction and good things are going to happen if people let the process play out.”
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