Penn State coach James Franklin watched his team's initial practices with an upbeat sense of promise. The Big Ten's modified scheduled had been released, his team was successfully navigating its COVID-19 measures and the players looked good.
He reflects now on what might have been.
"Is that part of it, that you felt like this season had the opportunity or had the chance - not guaranteed, but had the opportunity and had the chance - to be a special season for Penn State?" Franklin asked. "Yes. Yes. So that's part of the frustration."
Before moving on to what a winter season could look like, take a moment to lament the 2020 Penn State team and what it might have accomplished. The Lions returned a host of playmakers ("difference-makers," Franklin called them) on both sides of the ball, four starters on the offensive line and a second-year quarterback energized by a new offense.
Before the Big Ten's decision to postpone fall sports, Penn State was ranked No. 7 in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll and had two elite 2021 NFL draft prospects: linebacker Micah Parsons and tight end Pat Freiermuth. Parsons ultimately opted out even before the shutdown, and Freiermuth has not announced his plans.
Four Penn State players made Bruce Feldman's annual list of college football's most athletic "freaks," with defensive end Jayson Oweh topping out No. 4. Running back Journey Brown (No. 15) returned with higher expectations after becoming the first Penn State player to rush for 200 yards in a bowl game.
Elsewhere, the depth chart consisted of experienced starters (defensive end Shaka Toney, safety Lamont Wade and receiver Jahan Dotson) and rising stars (linebacker Brandon Smith and cornerback Keaton Ellis).
Left tackle Rasheed Walker, after one season as a starter, could be an NFL pick next year. And Clifford studied with a chess guru to strengthen his game.
"That’s been probably one of the frustrations for our players and the parents, and I know our staff of coaches," Franklin said. "We had a chance to be pretty good. .. I think we were preseason ranked inside the top 10 on almost everybody's chart, and we were standing out there those first couple days of practice.
"I’m looking around and we've got a good-looking team. We’re big, we’re long, we’re lean, we've got a bunch of guys who are over 300 pounds who look like they’re 270, 260. We’re fast, we’re athletic and then we had difference-makers on both sides of the ball."
So what's next? Penn State is likely to lose several of those difference-makers to the NFL draft, which Franklin was unready to address. Instead, he pointed out that he's being paid to identify solutions, not problems.
"That’s how we’re trying to work moving forward," Franklin said. "How do we solve the challenges that we have right now at Penn State? How do we solve the challenges we have right now in the Big Ten? How do we solve the challenges and problems we have in college football right now? And there’s a lot of them."
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