With Penn State’s Senior Day on Saturday against Nebraska rapidly approaching, the focus of this game week is obvious.
Speaking extensively about the Nittany Lions’ senior class in his weekly press conference Tuesday, coach Bill O’Brien noted how the group has embraced the responsibilities as leaders.
One of those tasks includes bringing along the younger players.
“The biggest thing to me is that they understand the word ‘teamwork’ and working together,” O’Brien said emphatically of his seniors. “They embrace the younger players.”
The impact of these seniors on the underclassmen has been noticed by O’Brien, and perhaps consequentially, as last weekend’s game against Purdue showed, some of the underclassmen have made significant progress.
Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has obviously seen quite a bit of action under center this year, and tight end Adam Breneman caught his first career touchdown against the Boilermakers.
But on both sides of the ball, there were several players reappearing or emerging for the first time as real contributors.
Offensively, Geno Lewis caught three passes for 19 yards and saw a few more targets go his way.
Lewis hauled in just two passes combined in the four games prior to Saturday’s decisive win over Purdue.
After the game Lewis attributed his progress as a route runner to leaders in the receiving corps, including senior pass catcher Brandon Felder.
On defense, freshman outside linebacker Brandon Bell saw significant time in the absence of Ben Kline (out for the season). Bell had three tackles.
Redshirt freshman Malik Golden, who played receiver last year, also saw some snaps in the secondary.
In the case of Bell and Golden, they’ve been on the field for almost every game this year, but not in that capacity.
Instead, the two have had to prove their worth on special teams, and O’Brien took notice of their efforts.
“I think as a young player, that’s where you really earn the right to play on offense and defense,” O’Brien said postgame. “That’s what we did. We moved them up.”
That’s what it’s all about for most underclassmen — paying your dues.
Many members of the current senior class had to do the same thing, earning playing time along with the respect of teammates and coaches doing the little things, namely on special teams.
And as this senior class departs, younger contributors will take on larger roles next year and for years to come.
In terms of these next two games, they’ll continue their progression, but players like Lewis, Bell and Golden have years of potential to look forward to.
And in O’Brien’s eyes, they have the proper grounding from the senior class rubbing off on them to the hard work put in on special teams in order to succeed.
John McGonigal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @jmcgonigal9.