Stephon Morris said he heard the whispers from some of Penn State’s younger players at the beginning of the season.
“Next year, I might not be here.”
As Penn State started to win games, Morris said the whispers started to die down. The Nittany Lions controlled contests against Temple, Navy and Illinois. They mustered up 22 points in the fourth quarter to comeback against then-No.24 Northwestern. After a bye week, they decimated Iowa in enemy territory.
But Ohio State outmatched Penn State on Oct. 27, and Morris started to hear the whispers again.
“Next year, I might not be here.”
Morris, a senior cornerback, is one of Penn State’s most outspoken leaders. He brought these underclassmen behind closed doors.
“If you leave here,” he said to them, “where would you want to go?”
Several weeks later, the Ohio State game is likely not at the front of these players’ minds. The Lions concluded their season Saturday in thrilling fashion, knocking off Wisconsin 24-21 in overtime.
Many younger players helped Penn State to its respectable 8-4 record, and the Big Ten recognized many of them with awards Monday.
Sophomore Allen Robinson is a first-team All-Big Ten wideout. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter is a first-team All-Big Ten tight end. Redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes and sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos are honorable mention.
These are the players schools will try to recruit this offseason while the NCAA’s transfer dispensation for Penn State still stands.
Nonetheless, the 2012 season could hardly have ended in a more dramatic fashion for Penn State. Morris said he thinks the emotions of Saturday will remind the younger guys why they are playing for Penn State.
“I can’t speak for anyone,” Morris said. “But the way we felt in the locker room today, the way the coaches got excited jumping around with us, I can’t see none of [the underclassmen] leaving. I’d be very surprised if any of them guys leave.”
Freshman tight end Jesse James is likely another guy who will get some looks after his impressive rookie year. He caught 15 passes, exactly one-third of them for touchdowns.
But in coach Bill O’Brien’s tight end-happy offense, James said he doesn’t expect to be pressured to leave.
“The coaching staff has done a great job of creating bonds with everyone and we’re all just one big family,” James said. “The family aspect is what holds us together through it all.”
It looks as though that coaching staff will remain together for the near future, too.
“I plan on being the head football coach at Penn State [in 2013],” O’Brien told Atlanta-based radio station 790 AM “The Zone” on Tuesday. “That’s my plan and that’s what I intend to do.”
O’Brien, who will again have to handle the task of holding his current team together this offseason, said after the game Saturday that Penn State’s 8-4 record “just sounds better” to everyone.
“To think that we won eight of our last ten games and won eight games,” the coach said. “It’s just a much better feeling. When you’ve been in a losing locker room at the end of a season, it’s a horrible feeling. When you’ve been in a winning locker room at the end of a season, it’s a euphoric feeling.”
There wasn’t any whispering in the locker room Saturday — just cheering and jumping. Even O’Brien flung himself into the middle of it all.
Though Morris is graduating, he said the closeness of this year’s football can be kept alive by the returning players.
“This 2012 team, it’s not just one team for 2012,” Morris said. “That goes on. When we say one team, when we break the huddle, that’s not just for 2012, that’s for 2013 and 2014. That goes on. Hopefully all of them just stay intact.”
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