The last time Penn State faced Illinois, Nick Scott threw a touchdown.
It was just three years ago. But given everything that’s happened since, it’s easy to forget that the Nittany Lions’ senior safety and defensive captain started out on offense.
As a redshirt freshman running back, Scott didn’t get a carry in the Lions’ 39-0 rout of the Fighting Illini. But he did take a lateral from Christian Hackenberg, run to his right, stop and then lob a pass back across the field to the quarterback for the score.
“A long time (ago), for sure,” Scott said this week as he prepares to take on the Illini again on Friday night. “I tell people all the time I feel like a grandfather in the locker room, being 23 years old, being a fifth-year senior. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m actually the oldest guy on the roster.
“But, yeah, I look back and I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity I had. And I only want to continue to be more successful this season.”
It wasn’t exactly how he envisioned things going when he enrolled at Penn State in 2014, part of James Franklin’s first recruiting class, which he inherited from former Lions coach Bill O’Brien.
He didn’t turn into the Lions’ next heralded rusher. Neither did the other two running backs Penn State signed that winter — Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas.
Scott joked during the summer that there were “26 reasons” that he ended up on the other side of the ball.
That, of course, would be the jersey number of Saquon Barkley — the guy who did land that starring role in the backfield, arriving the year after Scott, Allen and Thomas.
But here in 2018, Barkley is already off to the NFL after three seasons. And against tall odds, the other three are still suiting up for a fifth year with the Lions.
Scott is in his second year as a team captain having moved up from special teams ace to starting safety. Allen is the second-team running back behind Miles Sanders. Thomas is a special teams fixture who just a few days ago finally got to experience the spotlight as a rusher, scoring his first touchdown.
“I’d say first and foremost the biggest thing that helped us was that all of us had an extremely positive attitude,” Scott said. “When you come in here, everybody has the aspirations to start and make a big impact. Obviously that wasn’t the case for us, but we found other ways to affect the team in different ways.
“So myself, I felt that it was best for me to move the defense and have an impact there. Mark Allen, he’s been extremely positive. A leader in the running back room for years now. Somebody that the younger guys could come to whether they were above him or below him on the depth chart.
“Johnathan Thomas, he’s done anything asked of him by anybody in this program. He’s excelled at it and been positive all the time and just been working. And he’s a guy like Mark where anybody can come to him. He has the utmost respect from everybody in this program. And so Saturday was extremely awesome to see him get his first career touchdown. We were all happy for him.”
No one would have blamed any of them if they had left for a bigger opportunity at a different school. All three had signed on at a time when the program was still under a postseason ban with no promise of success. It’s a very different Penn State they play for now, one that hopes to be back in the College Football Playoff and is able to land five-star talents like Sanders.
So what has been the blueprint for them to stick it out despite limited playing time?
“Just stay level-headed and maintain our work ethic and just keep pushing forward,” said Allen, a 5-foot-6 Maryland native who carries himself like he’s a foot taller. “And Johnathan Thomas is a great example of that. He’s a guy that the whole team looks up towards. He’s been through a lot and it’s paid off.
“Not paid off when you wanted it to pay off. But when it does come and if you continue to prepare the way that you should, you can take advantage of it just like Johnathan did. That’s the way that we all have been doing it this entire time.”
Allen scored his sixth career touchdown last Saturday against Kent State. With time winding down in the fourth quarter of a blowout, Thomas scored his first.
Thomas redshirted in 2014, coming off of a torn ACL as a high school senior. He had 11 carries in 2015. He was moved to linebacker, appearing as only a deep reserve. Last year, he made five tackles on the kick coverage unit.
Then this past weekend, Thomas took a handoff in a game for the first time since Oct. 31, 2015 — that same Illinois game in which Scott threw a touchdown.
He burst 69 yards up the middle before a defender dragged him down with an illegal horse collar tackle.
The Lions handed off to him on the next three plays, with the last one going 15 yards for a touchdown. The entire sideline mobbed him when he returned.
“I went out of my way on Saturday in the locker room with the guys, with Johnathan Thomas,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if there’s a better example of what we call the ultimate teammate. Complete team-first guy. Always has a smile on his face. Always is reaching out a helping hand to try to help a teammate, a young player, a rookie coming in, a veteran that may be going through something.
“He’s just been a fantastic teammate and a fantastic member of the team. I think that’s why you saw the sideline and the team respond the way they did when he scored that touchdown. So we kind of all have different stories and different paths. And he’s got a long one. But couldn’t be more proud of him and his role and how he’s embraced it and what he’s done.”
Franklin shared before the season that Thomas vowed to him that the running back room as a whole would provide the same production as it did a year ago, even without Barkley.
In the first three games this season, the Lions rushed for 713 yards (5.8 per carry) and 14 touchdowns.
In the first three games last season, the Lions rushed for 561 yards (6.8 per carry) and eight touchdowns.
Where things go from here for the Lions is uncertain. But Thomas, Allen and Scott will be a big part of it.
“All three of those guys have had tremendous journeys,” Franklin said. “And they’ve been invaluable to the things that we’ve been able to do over the last four years.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse