All three committed to Penn State in 2013 and signed the following February, weeks after an effervescent new coach named James Franklin took over. They don’t remember the gloomy predictions for the program immediately after the sanctions came down: Worse than the death penalty … won’t recover until 2020 or 2022, at the earliest … may never be the same.
Five years and one day later, the players arrived at Big Ten media days to represent the defending league champion. Following a shocking run to the conference title, Penn State will enter the 2017 season as a top-10 team and a College Football Playoff candidate.
“They’ve gotten to the other side,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Monday.
Faster than anyone expected.
“When you tell me about that [forecast] — 2020, 2022 — when I hear that, it epitomizes what Penn State is about,” Cabinda told ESPN.com on Monday. “What other university has something like this happen where hundreds of football alumni fly in just to come and talk to the team and tell [players], ‘Hey, this is where you need to be.’ They’re done, their time is over, they don’t owe us anything. But they’ll take the time, buy a flight, come and talk to every senior, every junior, every sophomore, every freshman, and say, ‘Stay here. This is where you need to be.’
“That’s powerful, it really is. That shows the resiliency this place has.
On Monday, Delany acknowledged the “difficult, difficult road” Penn State traversed following the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and the NCAA penalties. He said Penn State faced challenges he had never seen in his administrative career — far beyond a postseason ban and scholarship losses. He praised the school for making changes and complying with requirements set forth. He described Penn State’s culture, which NCAA president Mark Emmert eviscerated while announcing the sanctions, as “one of the great ones in the country.”
“Maybe the least important [thing] is how good their football team is,” Delany said. “But their football team is now healthy.”
After an ahead-of-schedule title run, Penn State could be positioned to match or even exceed last year’s performance. The Nittany Lions return arguably college football’s most exciting backfield with running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, who will again operate for innovative play-caller Joe Moorhead.
Wide receiver Chris Godwin, king of the 50-50 ball, departed for the NFL, but Penn State should have more depth to go along with the springy Gesicki at tight end. The offensive line, impacted more by the sanctions than any other position group, not merely could be improved but “has a chance to be special,” Franklin said Monday. The defense has some potential holes but brings back key pieces like Cabinda at linebacker and Allen at safety.