While piecing together my content plan for the final week of Land of 10’s existence, I knew we couldn’t close shop without one more mailbag. The opportunity to engage with Penn State fans in this forum during the past 15 months has been rewarding and enlightening, especially as someone who didn’t set foot in State College before last April.
The steady flow of interaction — whether for mailbag purposes or Facebook Live sessions, on social media or outside Beaver Stadium — challenged me to explore new topics. On many occasions, I’ve proposed questions to Nittany Lions coaches, players and prospects based on subjects our audience wanted to learn more about.
Again, if you weren’t yet aware, Cox Media Group decided to shut down its college athletics coverage network, which includes Land of 10, SEC Country and Diehards sites, effective June 30. Since we learned about this development in May, I’ve attempted to prioritize creating the kind of pieces you’ve appreciated since I hopped on board here.
With that said, how about a final dive into the mailbag…
What did you find to be the strangest thing about PSU/State College?
— PGQue (@PGQue) June 27, 2018
Uh, oh. This is the kind of question that can get me in trouble!
My wife may be the better source for an answer here since she is a self-proclaimed “City Girl” who has spent most of here life in or near Manhattan. Our move to Happy Valley last July certainly resulted in a significant change of scenery.
We live approximately 12 miles northeast of Beaver Stadium. I’m not sure if strange is the right word to apply to our discovery of manure season at the surrounding farms, but funky probably fits the bill. My nose may need a few more years here to truly get used to that, if noses do indeed get used to such odors.
Speaking of cows, the university’s Creamery obsession is definitely legitimate in State College, and it’s a frequent favorite of recruits. People talk about the place and debate its best flavors all the time. I was directed there immediately after my first Penn State camp.
The Creamery does serve up some outstanding scoops, and fortunately its ice cream was often available in the press box, but if you’ll allow an unpopular opinion — I prefer a cone from nearby Meyer Dairy.
Enough about the town’s tastes and smells, let’s talk some football.
Which freshmen do you think will use up a year of eligibility even with the 4 given games
— Chris Condi (@chriscondi_) June 27, 2018
This is an interesting item to discuss considering the recent NCAA rules alteration that allows players to participate in up to four games without sacrificing redshirt status. Aside from redshirt labels referenced due to medical hardship or unique personal issues, this conversation always centers on freshmen.
Last year, before the approach was adjusted, Penn State applied redshirts to 18 of its 21 scholarship freshmen. Among the three who did see action — defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and defensive backs Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade — none logged a start.
The Nittany Lions’ 2018 recruiting class is its highest-ranked freshmen group dating to the establishment of composite class rankings nearly 20 years ago. All 23 signees are now on campus, and six of them participated in spring practice as early enrollees.
Linebackers Jesse Luketa and Micah Parsons joined the program in January and displayed their potential with productive efforts in the Blue-White Game. Parsons, who is Penn State’s top-rated prospect since 2005, transitioned from defensive end to linebacker this spring and is among the more highly anticipated freshmen to monitor in college football.
Depending on how a compelling linebacker competition shakes out this summer and into early stages of the season, it wouldn’t surprise to see both Luketa and Parsons burn their redshirts. Elsewhere on defense, PJ Mustipher and Judge Culpepper have the physical tools to push veterans for snaps along the interior front, while Jayson Oweh’s rapid ascension since first playing the sport in 2016 leads me to believe he could progress quicker than many anticipate as an effective collegiate edge rusher.
Justin Shorter, the nation’s No. 1 receiver recruit in his class, is too polished, poised and special to spend an entire season sidelined. Penn State welcomed five blue-chip pass targets to the roster this year. It’s easy to give Shorter the nod as most likely to compete in more than four games, while tight end Pat Freiermuth would likely be No. 2 on my list.
Running back Ricky Slade, another 5-star recruit, has the scintillating skills to become a showcase contributor early in his college career. However, he does encounter a Nittany Lions backfield that features motivated veterans, headlined by junior Miles Sanders, who was the position’s No. 1 player in 2016 composite prospect rankings.
The key for Slade could be his ability to impact matchups beyond the backfield. He’s an excellent receiver and earned first-team all-state honors in Virginia at kick returner last season.
Jake Pinegar is another necessary mention. He’s in the mix for kicking duties left behind by Tyler Davis. Unlike every other freshman, Pinegar is the only player at his position who carries scholarship status.
Will Penn State find itself in a college football playoff in the next 3-4 years? Thanks for all your great work, Tyler!
— Dave (@PTDukie33) June 27, 2018
Penn State knocked on the door of College Football Playoff contention during each of the last two seasons, claiming a Big Ten championship along the way. The Nittany Lions’ presence in that race was a surprise in 2016 and anticipated in 2017.
Following the departure of six players selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, most notably Saquon Barkley, Penn State has an opportunity to prove it’s a program that can reload. That’s what separates college football’s elite echelon from the crowd.
Consistent recruiting success and staff continuity, especially on defense, put the Nittany Lions in excellent position to do just that this season. The internal hire of offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, a longtime James Franklin assistant who called plays in the Fiesta Bowl, also supplies confidence for a smooth transition.
In the short-term, we’ll learn a lot about where things stand by the end of September, a stretch punctuated by Ohio State’s visit to Beaver Stadium. An unbeaten opening month would establish national expectations for a playoff push, especially with experienced quarterback Trace McSorley leading the charge.
Long-term, what’s not to like?
Franklin signed a new contract in 2017. His program is recruiting at an extremely high level. It is producing NFL talent at the highest rate of his tenure, which reverberates among top high school players.
Ultimately, the most important thing you need to know about this team’s trajectory can be found in the win-loss columns. Penn State has won 20 of its last 23 games, compiling double-digit victory totals in consecutive seasons for only the third time in 30 years.
Each of those three defeats occurred away from home and against ranked opponents, with a combined margin of seven points.
Barkley described the Nittany Lions’ rising standard of success in November.
“Two losses in a row to two great teams with great coaches, but you’ve got to have the focus that we still have work to do,” Barkley said following a victory over Rutgers that snapped Penn State’s two-game losing streak. “We hold ourselves to such a high standard that 8-2 seems like the worst thing possible, but there’s a lot of teams that would love to be in our position.”
Penn State doesn’t have a College Football Playoff appearance on its resume — and, yes, I would lean toward that changing in the next four years — but a lot of programs would love to be in their position these days.
What will the biggest achievement of the James Franklin era be five years from now? Still the B1G title or something else?
— Andrew Rubin (@andrewrubin24) June 27, 2018
First off, a quick shout to Andrew, who spent plenty of time alongside me and other media members the last year as an undergraduate reporter with The Daily Collegian. He’s not covering football as a senior, so here’s hoping some excellent tailgate experiences await him on game days this fall.
This is a cool question and correlates with the one I addressed before it. If Penn State fans had doubts about the direction things were headed after Franklin’s first 30 games (16-14 record), they’ve been dispelled by recent developments.
As Andrew notes, through four seasons, the 2016 Big Ten championship is Franklin’s biggest achievement in terms of tangible results.
Like many coaches, I’m sure he’d prefer to point toward the success of his student-athletes, ranging from those who’ve earned NFL paychecks to those who’ve found prosperity beyond football, as his proudest accomplishment. But, let’s face it — every leader at this level wants to show the world their team can beat anyone, anywhere.
It’s precisely the message Franklin has aimed to deliver on the recruiting trail and incoming players have embraced that mission.
“Coming in as a top-5 class, there’s [a lot] on our shoulders to live up to,” freshman receiver Daniel George said in April. “I really think our expectations are reality. These guys coming in — my teammates — we’re all strong-minded, and we want a national championship. It’s not like, ‘Maybe we’ll get into a bowl game.’ It’s ‘We will win a bowl game, and we will push for a national championship.’”
So, within the structure of Andrew’s question, I do like Penn State’s chances to make it multiple conference championships under Franklin. Even just one more Big Ten title before 2023 would give Franklin two in seven years.
Considering the uncertainty that was swirling around Nittany Lions football upon his arrival, that would be quite an accomplishment. It would also continue Franklin’s climb up the college football coaching hierarchy.
In terms of a biggest achievement, would multiple Big Ten championships be topped by one playoff appearance, even if it resulted in a semifinal defeat? Probably, because it means Penn State at least qualified for college football’s most exclusive party.
A national championship appearance, regardless of the result, would obviously vault to the top of the list.
I’ll take an optimistic approach, based on the various program dynamics mentioned here, and predict an increasingly deeper Penn State team will win at least one playoff game during the proposed five-year span.