UNIVERSITY PARK — It took three minutes into his media day press conference for sixth-year Penn State coach James Franklin to share the mantra for this year’s team: “championship habits.”
Penn State opened its fall camp on Friday, and Saturday morning, the program held its annual media day.
Championship habits, of course, are spearheaded by leaders. Despite his team’s inexperience at several positions, Franklin believes he and his coaching staff have cultivated a culture of leadership — despite age or position — that should make the transition this season a bit easier.
“I think you’re always putting a priority on developing leadership through your entire roster when you have a big team — like football with 125 guys,” Franklin said. “I think that goes back to our philosophy on not having two seniors as captains because you want to make sure that you’re having an impact and being able to relate across your roster from freshmen all the way to seniors, offense, defense and special teams.”
Among Penn State’s veteran players, Franklin pointed to safety Garrett Taylor, offensive linemen Steven Gonzalez and Michal Menet, cornerback John Reid and linebacker Cam Brown as players he expects to fill those roles.
“Garrett Taylor has had a great summer,” Franklin said. “He looks unbelievable. He’s as lean and explosive and fast as he’s been. He obviously has tremendous experience, as well.”
Taylor played in 13 games each of the last two seasons, and logged time in 12 his freshman year.
“I’ve always been a guy who likes to lead by example, just in terms of my work ethic and how I prepare myself on and off the field,” Taylor said. “I just think I’ve kind of embraced that role a little bit more going into my last year, especially vocally. I like it, and I think guys are taking my word for things. We are young, but I think we’re a mature team.”
Defensive lineman Yetur Gross-Matos returned from suspension and practiced with the team on Friday. Franklin suggested Gross-Matos didn’t appear to be hindered at all by his summer absence.
“He’s had a great summer, and from what I’ve seen, he looked great yesterday,” Franklin said. “I know he’s appreciative to be back, and I think he’s going to have a really big year for us. As the year went on last year, he really started to kind of separate himself as one of the more elite defensive ends in college football. I think he told me yesterday he’s 255 pounds. He’s been as big as 265. I could see him playing 260 this year. We’re very pleased with him and his development.”
While Franklin has yet to name a starting quarterback for the season, he shed light on what will go into his process of determining who will replace record-setting signal-caller Trace McSorley. Franklin thanked McSorley for his contributions to the program and wished him success on his NFL endeavors.
Whether it’s Sean Clifford or Will Levis, Penn State will start a new quarterback for the first time in three seasons. Although McSorley is no longer with the program, Franklin said the example he set remains.
“I think it’s been very valuable for Clifford and Levis, specifically, to watch that guy and how he prepared for the last couple of years,” Franklin said. “What type of teammate he was, the type of competitor he was, all of it. For us, every single position we’re going to compete like crazy and give everybody opportunities to try to increase their role or win a job. We’ll make the decision at the time that is most appropriate for our team, but then also at the time that’s most appropriate for that guy, as well, because there’s also a leadership component that accompanies that position.”
Franklin continued, “The good thing is both of them are approaching it the right way. They’re both approaching it as if they’re starters, and they’re both approaching it from a leadership perspective. And they’re both very talented.”
Five starters return on offense and six on defense, but strong recruiting classes over the years give Penn State a roster laden with talent — albeit young talent. Franklin said although some of those players didn’t start last year, they still received in-game experience last year which keeps him optimistic about their chances.
“We’re a young team, but we relied on a bunch of inexperienced players last year, and they’re all a year older,” Franklin said. “That’s one of the reasons I was so confident is because I know what they’ve done.”
Meadville graduate and Penn State running back Journey Brown returned to the team on Friday after serving a suspension over the summer. He rushed for 44 yards and one touchdown on eight carries last season. Having sat behind current NFL running backs Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders the last two seasons, Brown said he learned a few things from the talented backs.
“The mentality you’re supposed to have and the tradition they set,” Brown said. “They kept pushing us and leading the way and showed us how to be a good person on and off the field. They taught us those types of things and, of course, how to play ball — techniques, work ethic and the little things.”