In nine bowl games over 10 years as a head coach, Penn State's James Franklin had not had one player opt out of playing in a bowl game. This year, Franklin has six.
“We've never seen this in college football, right?" Franklin told reporters Wednesday in Tampa, Fla., ahead of the Outback Bowl. "We've never seen people not playing. It happened a little bit last year. We thought we were done with it. It's happening again this year.
"... "It's challenging. What I would say is, I’m focused on the guys that are in our locker room. That doesn’t mean that I’m not happy and excited and supportive of the guys that are not, but I’m excited about the guys that are in our locker room and I’m excited about the guys that are gonna have bigger roles."
Penn State will play Arkansas without two All-Americans, its team MVP, five defensive starters and more than 60 percent of its sack production. On Wednesday, as Penn State held its third bowl practice in Tampa, defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo became the sixth Lion to forgo the bowl game.
In all, the collection of talent will be impossible for Penn State to replace against Arkansas:
- Dotson, voted the team's MVP, became just the second receiver in Penn State history to catch 90 passes in a season.
- Brisker was named to seven All-America teams and was voted Penn State's defensive MVP.
- Ebiketie led the Big Ten with 17 tackles for loss.
- Brooks (100) and Smith (81) were the defense's top two tacklers.
- Tangelo, a Duke transfer, started all 12 games, made five sacks and solidified the interior line after tackle PJ Mustipher's season-ending injury.
Franklin acknowledged that he can't replace those players. Instead, Penn State seeks to build its lineup around a group of younger players eager to emerge in the Outback Bowl. The head coach even noted that some young players, likely at linebacker, will burn their redshirts by playing in their fifth game of the season.
Further, Franklin pointed to the other challenges his team has faced this season. Against Rutgers, for instance, Penn State played without 21 players because of a team-wide flu breakout.
"It's been a challenging two years," Franklin said. "I think back earlier in the season to the Rutgers game, we got hit with the flu and we didn't have a scholarship quarterback available until Friday. So there's been a lot of challenges.
"But at the end of the day, the reality is that you've got to find a way to get it done. As one door closes, another door opens and it’s an opportunity for another player."
Arkansas has had two players opt out, including leading receiver Treylon Burks. Both coaches sought to see the bright side of the decisions.
"I think it’s also going to give us a really good picture of what our future is going to be," Franklin said. "There’s going to be guys who are going to get a bunch of reps in this game that maybe hadn’t throughout the season.
"There's some challenges, no doubt it. Our guys are excited, and I think there's also some team leaders out there that we're depending on who are going to need to step up for us. There's no doubt about it."
Added Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, "If we played in the regular season, the teams would be different. I mean, they're just different because we've had a couple leaving for the NFL. He's had several over there at Penn State. The teams are different. I mean, that's justwhat it is.
"Once you wrap your mind around that the teams are different, that you're going to field a different football team, you're probably going to find some surprises both ways from who's out there."