It was, by any measurement, a difficult locker room to join.
The freshman class that arrived with James Franklin at Penn State back in 2014 walked into something of a hornet nest, a group of players that had been recruited by two very different coaching staffs and two very different styles compared to Franklin.
A group that had lived through the onset of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the ousting of Joe Paterno. That had seen the arrival of Bill O’Brien upended by massive NCAA sanctions. That had bonded very closely through that adversity — only to see O’Brien leave for the greener pastures of the NFL.
And now here was yet another new coach strolling in, talking about family and togetherness.
Tough to blame any returning players who might have rolled their eyes at that point — concerning themselves, perhaps, more with their own situations.
Not the most welcoming of environments for the wide-eyed freshmen who were just arriving.
“And that’s not their fault,” one of those rookies, linebacker Koa Farmer, was quick to point out. “Those guys had seen, ultimately, three or four coaches. And I think that was hard. That was hard for coach Franklin and hard for this program.”
Now, for the first time, the locker room is 100 percent players who signed with Franklin. It’s led by nine players who were part of that initial scholarship class — Mark Allen, Farmer, Trace McSorley, Amani Oruwariye, Nick Scott, Johnathan Thomas, DeAndre Thompkins, Chasz Wright and the injured Torrence Brown. Fellow fifth-year players Kyle Vasey and Charlie Shuman were walk-ons who earned scholarships this summer.
“These are all coach Franklin’s guys, so to speak,” McSorley said. “They have only heard his message. So now it’s easier to get that buy-in and chemistry, especially from these guys. So now it’s just hitting the ground running with that kind of stuff. We’ve been able to do that and the chemistry on this team has been able to grow. And even losing guys every year, it keeps growing and growing and getting better and better.”
Heading into Saturday’s 2018 opener against Appalachian State, the atmosphere around the team couldn’t be more different than it was four years earlier.
“From then until now, I’ve seen it,” Farmer said. “It’s tremendous for our program to have that chemistry — not only with the relationship with your coaches, but the relationships with your teammates.
“I think having that chemistry, especially with the coaches now, us buying into the system … is very important to our success.”
Franklin himself has certainly noticed. During his first year in charge of the Nittany Lions, he talked frequently about a “wall” that existed between his staff and the players they inherited and the effort needed to pull it down.
“I’ve been very impressed,” Franklin said. “I think our culture is really strong right now. I think our chemistry is really strong. I think our leadership is different in terms of we don’t have a huge senior class and those types of things. … But I think our guys have really embraced that and our leadership has been tremendous with those things.”
It helps that those seniors were sold on his plan before even stepping foot on campus.
Long before he was a Heisman hopeful, McSorley was a 175-pound high-schooler who most schools were recruiting as a safety.
But Ricky Rahne, now Penn State’s offensive coordinator, went out to see him throw. Rahne came away impressed enough that he, Franklin and the staff at Vanderbilt offered him a scholarship as a quarterback.
So when that same staff got hired at Penn State, McSorley didn’t hesitate to follow them to Happy Valley. And that’s the perspective he brings to his final college season.
“I think looking back on the last five years, I think it’s awesome to see how far our team has grown collectively and how much our chemistry has improved from when I first got here to what it is now,” McSorley said. “… That’s been really, I think, the biggest contributor to how we’ve been able to be as successful as we have been the last couple years.”
Naturally it helps the mood of the locker room when you go 22-5 over two seasons, including a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl appearance and a Fiesta bowl win.
Compare that to four years ago, when the Lions didn’t have their postseason ban lifted until after the season started.
“I’ve been here since the 2014 days when we were just happy to make the Pinstripe Bowl,” Oruwariye said. “And now to the past few years, two (11)-win seasons. The program has come a long way, but we’re ready to put that in the past and cement something new this year and go for bigger goals.”
Off the field, that includes molding the new freshman class that was Penn State’s highest rated of the 21st century.
Farmer said the team has a “big brother, little brother” program that involves mentoring the rookies with football and life in general.
“Us being closer to the younger guys on the team helps bring them along, helps them mature faster,” Farmer said. “They’re comfortable talking to me about certain things. Certain things that I went through or something playbook-wise.”
The idea is to continue the cycle so the freshmen can repay the favor when they themselves are the seniors.
“Just kind of leading by example,” Oruwariye said. “Having all the younger guys see what we’ve done in the past years and wanting to get to that point so they just kind of follow in our footsteps. And I think we do a good job of leading that way.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse