The Penn State football team spent months separated last year because of the pandemic.
Most players returned home and did the best they could to stay in shape on their own.
When the Nittany Lions returned to campus in the summer, they did drills in groups and not collectively as a team. And even after they got the OK to start the season, they limited outside get-togethers to limit the spread of COVID-19.
This year has been very different. They’ve been together all along. They’re spending more time together and forming stronger bonds they say will lead to success in 2021 after a losing season last year.
“This team is closer than any team I’ve ever been a part of,” senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson said. “I feel that’s what separates us, the brotherhood around here. We know that we’re willing to fight for each other every single day, whether it’s on the practice field or the game field.
“I feel like that can take us a long way.”
It remains to be seen how long that togetherness will last if Penn State gets off to a rocky start against a rugged schedule, starting with its opener Saturday at Wisconsin.
The Lions, though, say their unity is unbreakable because of all the experiences they’ve shared on and off the field.
“It doesn’t matter who you are — freshman, senior, fifth-year, walk-on — everybody hangs out together,” said Rasheed Walker, an All-America candidate at left tackle. “We all play basketball together. We all go out to eat together. We all go to the movies together. We all have that relationship.
“No one’s scared to call someone out. If someone sees me do something that’s not the standard, someone can say something to me and I’m not going to get offended. That’s how our relationships are. I feel like that’s going to translate to the field.”
The culture that coach James Franklin has tried to build within the locker room since he was hired in 2014 was shaken last year during the 0-5 start, the worst in school history. Players easily could have pointed fingers and let frustration get the best of them.
Penn State, though, somehow managed to dig its way out of the hole and win its final four games against Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois. They weren’t exactly elite teams, but it was impressive nonetheless.
The Lions want to regain their status as one of the Big Ten’s best teams. They believe their togetherness will be the most important factor, not whether new coordinator Mike Yurcich can re-energize the offense or whether tweaks on defense can turn around its performance in 2020.
“I’m not saying we didn’t play for each other in the past, but this is the closest I’ve been to the guys,” kicker Jordan Stout said. “Everyone on the team would pretty much say the same thing. And when you’re that close, you love each other. You don’t want to play for yourself by any means. You want to play for them.”
Penn State needs quarterback Sean Clifford to improve his accuracy and timing from last year. It needs the offensive line to protect him and open holes for a deep stable of running backs. It needs to find pass rushers on defense. And it needs to create more turnovers.
Facing road games against Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State, the Lions need to stick together in order to become contenders again.
“I think we’re in a really good place,” Franklin said. “We try to do those things that I think are really important in building a team through blood, sweat and tears, but also through laughter and joy.
“We didn’t really get any of those things last year. Is this team closer than any team I’ve been around, or does it just feel magnified after going through what we went through last year? I’m not really sure. But I think we have a very close team. And that usually results in good things.”
Source: Berkshire mont