Wide receiver Jahan Dotson and tackle Rasheed Walker, two of Penn State’s best players on offense, are in their fourth season together in the program and have seen a lot, from a 2019 Cotton Bowl championship to the team’s disappointing play during the COVID-clouded 2020 season.
But there’s something about this year that has convinced them the Nittany Lions could be headed for a special season.
The Nittany Lions open their season Saturday at one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten: Camp Randall Stadium, where they’ll go against No. 12 Wisconsin. Dotson said everyone is excited.
“We’ve been prepping literally all offseason for this moment and this game, and I just can’t wait to go out there and battle with my brothers,” he said.
» READ MORE: Penn State has a revamped offense
Walker said the team’s feeling of togetherness went back to winter workouts and spring practice.
“I think myself and a bunch of people, we didn’t realize how important spring ball was even besides the football aspect,” said the redshirt junior, who was named a team captain this week. “That time to be around each other, to build relationships, that stuff plays a huge impact on team chemistry. We had a great spring which set the foundation and the expectations for the summer, and by the time we got done with fall camp, everyone was locked in.
“Everyone knew what the standard was. We have a thing where, if you’re not 10 minutes early to any type of meeting, you’re late. So it’s stuff like that that’s already understood. I feel like this past spring that we had, it gave us an advantage and it gave us an edge to have an even better camp.”
Dotson, who like Walker made third-team all-Big Ten last season, said he never has been a part of any team that possesses the chemistry of this year’s Lions.
“It’s truly amazing,” he said. “During camp, the three or four weeks, we had one off day. That off day we’re literally all with each other, chilling, playing video games, looking over plays, watching film. It’s crazy.
“This team is closer than any team I’ve ever been a part of. 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.”
Penn State’s previous year was nothing like this one. Players were isolated at home, returned to campus in small groups during June and went back home two months later after the Big Ten canceled the season. When the conference reversed its stance on Sept. 16, the players stayed in the team bubble after coming back and were unable to see their families.
The pandemic also prevented coach James Franklin from having fun outings with his players that broke up the repetitive nature of practice. For that reason, he said it was tough to compare the camaraderie of this season with how everyone got along last year.
“We try to do things that I think are really important in building a team through blood, sweat and tears, but also through laughter and joy and those types of experiences,” Franklin said. “It’s just so hard to compare because we didn’t really get any of those things last year. So is it that this team is closer than any team I’ve been around, or does it feel magnified after going through what we went through last year? I’m not really sure.”
Franklin later admitted, however, that the team is very close. As an example, he cited Monday’s customary day off when players came into the football building and hung out together.
“There’s guys everywhere,” he said. “They’re in the facility laughing and talking trash to each other, getting rehab or doing re-gen or watching film on their own. When the guys want to come into the building and just be around each other and be around us, I think it’s a really good sign.”
Walker said one key to the stronger relationships is the fact that, in a way of speaking, there’s no class structure.
“It’s always been the upperclassmen-lower classmen thing,” he said, “but literally this year it didn’t matter who you were — freshman, senior, fifth-year, walk-on, everybody hung out together, spent quality time together. We all play basketball together. We all go out to eat together. We all go to the movies together. We all have that relationship.”
In addition to Walker, Franklin named as captains quarterback Sean Clifford, safeties Jonathan Sutherland and Jaquan Brisker, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, and punter/kicker Jordan Stout. Clifford and Sutherland, both redshirt seniors, are the first three-time captains in program history.
» READ MORE: James Franklin loves Penn State’s tight end group