ORLANDO, Fla.- There are a few words that come up if you’re really listening to what James Franklin, Trace McSorley and Nick Scott are saying. One head coach, and two leaders that have been around the block a few times.
The words, and the message, it’s all right there.
“I think with everybody pulling the rope in the same direction there is no reason why we can’t take this program where everybody wants it to be,” Franklin said at his introductory press conference.
The rope hasn’t been spoken of in a while after being a regular member of the early Franklin narrative. Penn State’s three-year run to the upper reaches of the Big Ten has pretty much proven his point. And sure, it hasn’t always gone according to plan, but the united front has still been there.
But as 2018 unfolded new words popped up along the way. A different message, but the same idea.
“I think the talent out of the young guys right now,” McSorley said after Citrus Bowl on Tuesday, “I don’t want to put a ceiling on them because I really think they can go as far as they want to. It’s going to be a matter of work ethic and buying into Coach Franklin and his program and those guys putting team before self and doing everything that they can to make this program, this team better.”
It might remind fans who listen closely to Franklin’s postgame monologue following Penn State’s loss to Ohio State. At the time it seemed somewhat out of place given the emotions of the loss, slightly irrelevant to the overall nature of the game. A hard sell to make to fans upset at another win-turned-loss against Ohio State.
But there was truth to his message.
“We lost by one point this year, we lose by one point last year. You make that up by the little things. By going to class consistently so the coaches don’t have to babysit you and we can spend our time developing you as men and as people and as players and not be babysitting everything,” Franklin said. “And don’t get me wrong, our guys do a great job going to class but there’s two or three guys, it’s all the little things. It’s all the little things that are going to matter and we are going to find a way to get from being a great program – which we are – just so everybody is crystal clear, we are a great program.”
In the greater context Franklin’s point is something that has been quietly reiterated throughout the year. Tuesday was not the first time McSorley has mentioned buying in, the Ohio State game was not the last time Franklin mentioned youth and younger players maturing. It hasn’t always been the primary point, but both of them have said it time and time again.
Going to class is less a message about actually going to class as it is a declaration that all of the little things make a difference. It’s less about grades and more about details. It’s less about two or three guys as it is getting 120 players to approach everything the same way. It’s not the only reason Penn State came up short at times, but it’s a foundation.
A tall order to fix, but in many cases the difference between talented rosters turning into talented teams. The difference between skills receivers looking to sky because of another drop, and looking down the field for the next tackle to break, field goal to make, block to set, etc..
So was it a problem all along?
“I would say every team sort of has that area,” Scott said on Tuesday, his collegiate career now over after a full five years. “You talk about going to class, things like that. It’s usually the younger crowd that you have to bring a long. The sooner you can do that the more successful you can be. So yea it has been an ongoing theme, but I would argue that every team has something that they have to do. It’s extremely hard to have 120 men all thinking the same and all be unselfish. That’s everywhere. But obviously the fewer guys we have that are focused on them, the more successful we will be.”
And is it frustrating to deal with?
“Frustrating? Maybe,” Scott said. “Not extremely frustrating just because you know the people have got to grow. It can be frustrating when things sort of rear their head in a loss if you have examples of people being undisciplined. That can be frustrating. When i came in as a freshmen I had my hardships, I had my areas where I had to grow, so I’m more understanding of it. So my role on this team is to accelerate that process of people growing into unselfish roles.”
In truth it is difficult to say with any strong authority what exactly Penn State’s locker room is like, but enough of the same words have been said for long enough outside of it to paint at least a faint outline of something the Nittany Lions will have to tackle in 2019 and beyond.
And maybe the rope will make an appearance again.