James Franklin sounded even more upbeat than usual on the eve of training camp talking about the 2016 Penn State Nittany Lions, with all 85 scholarships in use for the first time since the NCAA sanctions, and competition and depth at every position, unlike his first two years as head coach.
But the Nittany Lions needed a new quarterback. They needed to rebuild their defensive line and upgrade their offensive line. What were the new offensive and defensive coordinators going to bring to the table? And on a team with relatively few seniors, would there be enough leadership?
Still, after two straight seasons of 7-6 records and a bowl game to finish things off, Franklin was optimistic about the new season, saying that there were "positives to build on" and that "progress is going to come in every area."
"This is going to be a very important year for us, no doubt, to make progress, to show the direction that we're going in," Franklin said in July at Big Ten media days. "Our players understand that. Our coaches understand that, our fans and administration. I think everybody is excited about what this year is going to bring."
After a 2-2 start that had many fans wondering if progress would happen, the Nittany Lions showed growth in every area - offense, defense and special teams - in winning nine consecutive games. They received contributions from up and down the roster, from highly touted players such as Saquon Barkley to former walk-ons.
Barkley was a known talent, having rushed for 1,076 yards as a freshman in 2015, and thriving in new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's attack. Other key returning players were juniors wide receivers Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton, junior linebacker Jason Cabinda, senior linebacker Brandon Bell, and junior safety Marcus Allen.
However, other players with less on their resumés at the start of the season stood out. No. 1 in that category had to be quarterback Trace McSorley, who backed up Christian Hackenberg for two years and saw his first significant action at last season's TaxSlayer Bowl, where he threw a pair of touchdown passes.
McSorley, who had to win the starting job in training camp, broke single-season program records for passing yards (3,360), total offense yards (3,712) and touchdown passes (25). He threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns in the Big Ten championship game and was named MVP.
The Lions also received significant contributions from younger or previously unheralded players - junior tight end Mike Gesicki, freshman guard Connor McGovern, redshirt freshman offensive tackle Ryan Bates, fifth-year senior defensive end Evan Schwan, junior linebacker Brandon Smith, sophomore linebacker Manny Bowen, and redshirt junior kicker Tyler Davis, just to name a few.
When Franklin arrived at Penn State in January 2014, one of his challenges was cultivating team unity. The older guys had been recruited by Joe Paterno. Others had been recruited by Bill O'Brien, and he had to persuade some of them to stay on because they had committed to O'Brien.
But he methodically got everyone to buy in, or as he called it: "pulling the rope in the same direction." That mentality took over after the Lions suffered a lopsided loss at Michigan that could have had lasting demoralizing effects.
"We all believed in each other 100 percent in what we could do throughout the season, and we just kept that confidence in each other," said sophomore cornerback John Reid, who starred at St. Joseph's Prep. "Everybody stayed positive throughout the whole process. We made corrections and improved our game as a team, but our mentality hasn't changed."
Franklin last month said the team works very hard at locker room chemistry.
"Good teams are close," Franklin said. "Good teams care about each other. Good teams care about the organization or the school that they represent. They believe in each other. They believe in the coaches. The coaches believe in the players. Right now we've got great chemistry . . . really good chemistry in the locker room."
The coaching staff rebuilt units that were hard-hit by injuries. At one point early in the season, seven linebackers were sidelined but first-year defensive coordinator Brent Pry made it work. Former walk-on Brandon Smith, a linebacker who had played just three defensive snaps in his first two seasons, played like a veteran in the middle and led the team in interceptions with two.
Pry also had to improvise in overtime against Minnesota after Smith got hurt. Bowen, the starting strong-side linebacker who never played the middle in college, got a quick tutorial from Pry in the short time between the end of regulation and the start of the extra period, and performed well.
Later in the season, offensive tackle was hit hard; starters Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon and backup Paris Palmer suffered season-ending injuries. Bates, who starred at Archbishop Wood, moved over from left guard to left tackle, a position he never had played, and has been solid there.
McGovern, a 6-foot-5, 310-pounder who enrolled at Penn State in January, took over as the starting right guard in the season's fifth game. After the Iowa win, he was named Big Ten freshman of the week, the first lineman ever to win that honor.
Other impressive on-field performances:
Davis, a redshirt junior who never played football in high school but walked on at Penn State after playing soccer in his freshman year at Bradley, earned all-Big Ten first-team honors by going 22 of 24 on field goal tries and scoring 121 points.
Gesicki, an athletic 6-6 tight end who was plagued by dropped passes his first two years, stood out with 47 catches for 668 yards and four touchdowns, including leaping catches for scores against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The 6-6, 263-pound Schwan, who was recruited by Paterno's staff but committed to O'Brien in 2012, did not make his first career start until the 2016 season opener. He tied for the team lead in sacks with six and in tackles for losses with 8½, and made third-team all-Big Ten.