They committed to Penn State during James Franklin’s first season as head coach in 2014, a time when the new guy in charge was trying to figure out how to rebuild a program devastated by NCAA sanctions.
Out of an original class of 25 who officially signed on Feb. 4, 2015, their number has dwindled to five -- the fifth-year seniors who are among 16 seniors who will say goodbye to Beaver Stadium on Saturday, when the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions close their regular season against Rutgers.
The five are cornerback John Reid (St. Joseph’s Prep), tight end Nick Bowers, guard Steven Gonzalez, safety Garrett Taylor and defensive tackle Robert Windsor. A sixth player, Jan Johnson, walked onto the team in 2015 and has been the Lions’ starting middle linebacker for the last two seasons.
The construction of that class was aided in September 2014, when the NCAA executive committee lifted two penalties from sanctions that resulted from the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal. The panel restored the full number of scholarships, 25 for the year, 85 overall, while removing the bowl ban.
Other than Reid, who took a medical redshirt in 2017 after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in spring practice that year, the fifth-year players sat out their first season on campus, when the team was 7-6. A win Saturday will give them 41 career wins, most by a class in the Franklin era.
For Franklin, the players are important figures in the growth of the program and its culture.
“It’s really kind of amazing when you think about five years and the impact that guys can have, and those guys specifically, on a team, on a locker room, on a coaching staff, and really on a community,” Franklin said this week. “Five years ago, where the program was, compared to where it is now, is dramatically different.
“The reality is, those guys and guys like them -- the guys that were fifth-year seniors before that -- they’re owed most of the credit. They really are. They committed to Penn State at a time that maybe it wasn’t as easy of a decision to commit to Penn State. They’ve battled through adversity. They’ve been phenomenal.
“So it’s really hard to kind of sit here and put into words what they have meant to this program, what they have meant to me personally.”
Gonzalez, who will make his 41st career start, was one of the first in the class to commit to Franklin. He said the change has been dramatic.
“I feel there’s just a lot more team chemistry now than there was in 2015,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like guys are just all together, more bonded together. It’s not really like it was back in the days when there were these little groups, the older guys would have groups, and things like that. Now, everyone’s as one. Everyone’s a family. It’s been awesome to kind of be a part of that growth.”
Taylor said the 2015 class came at “a point in the program [when] there was still some turmoil” and that Franklin was trying to get his players to buy in.
“We had some guys who were, some guys who weren’t,” he said. “That’s no fault to them. That’s just kind of where the program was to that point. But I think through great leadership over the years and guys who have come through this program and helped elevate us, and the leadership we have now and the young guys, I think everyone has bought in.
“I don’t think anyone is questioning anything anymore. I think we all believe and trust in the process.”
The 2015 class included a number of players who didn’t stick around, such as running back Saquon Barkley, who dazzled fans for three seasons before moving on to the NFL and star with the New York Giants. Three other players are in the NFL, including Eagles defensive end Shareef Miller (George Washington High).
Eight players from the class took their degrees and transferred to play a final season elsewhere, such as wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Oregon) and quarterback Tommy Stevens (Mississippi State).
The ones who stayed will be honored before the game and saluted one more time by Franklin.
“It’s really hard to express what those guys have meant to our program, to our university, and to our community,” he said.