GLENDALE, Ariz. — Here’s the fun part: Of the 51 guys listed on Penn State’s Fiesta Bowl depth chart, 24 of them — almost half — are either sophomores or freshmen.
“We talk about that a lot, how we’re going to lose a lot of guys, a lot of experience,” one of those redshirt sophomores, defensive end Ryan Buchholz, said after the Lions capped the season with a 35-28 win over Washington in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl.
“But that’s kind of how we were last year. So it’s the same thing. Just need guys to step up.”
Oh, yeah. 2016. The Nittany Train that no one outside of Happy Valley saw coming … until it was too late.
Fool us once, shame on you.
Fool us twice …
“It’s a known standard already,” senior safety Marcus Allen said of Penn State’s 2018 prospects. “We’ve already put it into place.
“And all the incoming freshmen that haven’t been here, they’ve bought in. And I’m pretty sure whoever comes in, they’re going to teach them the same thing.”
Micah Parsons, the floor is yours.
You, too, Justin Shorter.
And you, Ricky Slade.
“Coach Franklin has obviously done a phenomenal job recruiting and bringing in talented guys, big-time guys and talented players,” tight end Mike Gesicki noted. “There’s talent everywhere, which causes everybody to compete each and every day in practice. And I think the future for Penn State football is bright.”
See that towering Fiesta Bowl memento in the trophy case? The spoils from Indianapolis last year?
That’s the standard.
That’s the bar.
The Lions just strung together back-to-back 11-win campaigns for the first time in nearly a decade, a hard climb back to the sport’s elite showing the fruits of James Franklin’s labor.
If we aren’t tossing Penn State into the Urban Meyer-reload club just yet, it’s because no one is 100 percent sure what this offense is going to look like without Joe Moorehead — although new coordinator Ricky Rahne made a hell of a first impression — and without DaeSean Hamilton [2 touchdown grabs on Saturday]; without Gesicki [6 catches]; and, presumably, without all-world back Saquon Barkley.
The Big Ten East is also the toughest single neighborhood in the Football Bowl Subdivision now, as merciless as they come, and someone has to wind up fourth.
Although Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin, four of the five toughest dance partners on the 2018 card, come to Beaver Stadium. And before we pencil the Lions behind the Buckeyes or Wolverines so quickly — Ohio State’s got more quarterbacks than it knows what to do with; Michigan might finally have a few, too; and Brian Lewerke at Michigan State is taking bigger strides by the day — did you see some of those kids flying around University of Phoenix Stadium? The ones having the time of their lives?
“Well, we had a lot of redshirt freshman and a couple of true freshmen that played in this game,” Buchholz said. “Yetur [Gross-Matos] and Shane [Simmons], they did really well. Tariq [Castro-Fields] had that big tackle early in the first quarter.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys. Of course, we’ve got a lot of big-time recruits, so I think [fans] shouldn’t be worried at all, even though we are losing a lot of guys.”
Like the man said, there’s a standard, and it’s known. Even if Barkley has one foot out the door, chances are Penn State isn’t going anywhere. Anywhere but up, that is.