A group of seniors may have never had such a tough act to follow at Penn State. For the leaders of the 2013 Nittany Lions, the key is not worrying about it.
The situation isn’t nearly the same as the one last year’s team faced. And these seniors aren’t going to try to impersonate Michael Mauti.
What the Lions do have is four seniors in particular who were starters last season.
Linebacker Glenn Carson enters his third season starting at middle linebacker and leads the squad with 24 starts. Safety Malcolm Willis (17 starts), guard John Urschel (12) and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (11) are the other three.
And all of them understand that their teammates are looking to them for guidance.
“I enjoy it. A lot,” Willis said. “I take pride in it. It’s definitely an honor. As far as being a leader, it really comes easy just because I’ve been here so long. I’ve formed a bond with most of the guys.
“I have a special relationship with all the DBs. Most guys look up to me in a way that makes me want to perform to the best of my abilities and lead them properly.”
As they did last season, the Lions will have individual game captains, with every senior earning the designation at least once. The team will then name its season captains at the end of November before the finale against Wisconsin.
Those experienced seniors such as Willis, however, will shoulder much of the load during the season, as they already have during winter workouts, spring practice and training camp.
While leadership doesn’t always come easily, this group hasn’t struggled with it because of how many games the seniors have appeared in.
“For me, it’s something that comes natural,” Jones said. “Just knowing we have to get down and get to work to get ready for season. Other players know I want to win, and we’re going to be ready for Aug. 31.”
All four players were pressed into duty back in 2010. Willis stepped in as a starter as a redshirt freshman when Nick Sukay was sidelined after surgery. Carson saw the field in every game as a true freshman. Injuries on the defensive line even had Jones playing at end in the middle of the season as a true freshman. When a few veterans were benched for disciplinary reasons before a game against Indiana at FedEx Field, Urschel got his first start as a redshirt freshman.
And all of them took cues from the older players at their positions. Jones, for example, had a string of talented linemen to look up to, including a pair of NFL draft picks in Devon Still and Jordan Hill.
“With Jordan and Devon, both taught me so many things,” Jones said. “About the pass rush and how to play fast. About how to carry yourself off the field. (How to be) a good kid. Don’t get in trouble. Don’t go out. Know the playbook.
“Both on and off the field, they were great examples.”
Now it’s their turn to set those examples. A guy like Urschel could have even more responsibility in the huddle as the Lions break in a pair of rookie quarterbacks.
Urschel’s advice for them is straightforward.
“To really be dedicated,” Urschel said. “A lot of things they have on their plate are from academics. It’s your first fall on campus. It’s a busy time of the year. … It’s a hectic time. The biggest thing is good time management and staying focused.
“Fortunately, they’re both great quarterbacks. They’re both great guys. They know all that already.”
Those lessons can carry over to the rest of the team. Carson in particular takes his role very seriously in setting a standard for the program to follow.
“We demonstrate our work ethic and how we carry ourselves,” Carson said. “Leaders have to show how to carry themselves, how to present themselves. That’s what we do as leaders.
“It’s about how to be a Penn State football player.”