SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Gameday is drawing closer as Penn State took to the field one last time for practice this afternoon. Prior to the practice, nearly the entire team as well as all Nittany Lion coaches participated in the Fiesta Bowl media day event.
Spanning an entire hotel ballroom, the team was divided up based on academic majors, with a few Nittany Lions taking spots around the room at podiums.
Penn State head coach James Franklin kicked off the event, taking to the podium to field questions from a variety of reports. Upon receiving a question about who media members might want to get to know a little better, Franklin noted that's actually part of what's so special about college football.
"You've got so many kids from so many different backgrounds and perspectives," Franklin said. "To me, probably the most valuable guys in our program are the guys that you don't know anything about. The guys that make the program run, the guys that allow us to practice the way we want to practice, the guys that sacrifice so much with their name not being in the newspaper, with them not scoring touchdowns. But we talk all the time about every single person in our program has a significant role that impacts this team."
Much like the ballroom on Fiesta Bowl media day, Franklin once again shared how the Nittany Lions go about planning the locker room setup.
"I think most of you guys know how we do the locker room," Franklin said. "It's different than most locker rooms where most people sit by position. We also break our entire locker room up racially. So the whole locker room is broke up like that so guys are forced to get to know each other on a very, very deep level."
Whether it's the locker room configuration or merely the conditions created by the staff surrounding the team, it's obvious the Nittany Lions are a close bunch.
"These are guys here, I mean best friends between DaeSean [Hamilton] and Mike [Gesicki], Jason [Cabinda], Saeed [Blacknall, me and Saquon [Barkley], the list goes on and on," quarterback Trace McSorley said. "Just our chemistry and continuity off the field, I think, really helps us on the field. We're that much more comfortable with each other on the field. We know where guys are going to be at and how they're going to run a route or go through the mesh or whatever it might be. Just our chemistry off the field it helps us huge on the field."
Among the 100-some stories, it's of course impossible to capture all of the special bonds this team shares. For now though, check in with a few of those special relationships from media day.
Field with Grant Haley
When most Nittany Lion fans hear his name, images of his historic blocked field goal returned for a touchdown last year against Ohio State might be top of mind. His on-field accomplishments go on and on as the All-Big Ten honorable mention selection is a crucial component of the Penn State secondary.
What fans might not know about the senior advertising and public relations major, is that he has a passion for writing too. On his bucket list, is writing a book, something he's already making serious progress toward completing.
It started from scribbles here and there, as Haley jotted down ideas before eventually deciding to put his book concept in writing.
"As of now, I'd say I probably have 70-75 pages done," Haley said. "I don't know if I'll finish it anytime soon but it is something that's on my bucket list to finish a book so we'll see how it goes."
While not too many people know about the book, among those who do, are Haley's roommates, including Koa Farmer, who happened to be a little disappointed he did not get cast as a character.
"I asked him if I was in the book and he said no, it's not that kind of book," Farmer said with a laugh.
of the Special Teams Unit
It's often from coaches and teammates that Nittany Lion Nick Scott is referenced as the leader of the special teams unit. A veteran on the field and a team captain this year, there's no doubting his presence and leadership on the field.
If you ask him though, having a positive attitude is where it all begins.
"I try to be the most positive player that I can, the most positive person. That's who I am off the field as well," Scott said. "I like to make guys laugh, I like to be goofy, it's my personality. However I can influence people in a positive way, whether it's acting a fool in the locker room or giving them words of encouragement in the locker room, that's what I do."
Although admittedly put on the spot, when asked about who he has become closest with, he turned to classmates Johnathan Thomas and DeAndre Thompkins.
When Thompkins first met Scott, he remembers someone with dreads, but for both Thomas and Thompkins, they remember the comedy too.
"He was just really goofy," Thompkins said. "He was just one of those guys that as soon as I met him, we connected on another level because we had the same mindset with stuff. We had the same jokes, sense of humor and right off the bat we connected in that way."
Per team tradition, when selecting his "ultimate teammate," Thomas selects Scott.
"He's reliable," Thomas said. "He holds everybody to a higher standard, whether it's in the locker room, on the field or during workouts. He's accountable and just a great teammate. He brings the juice and brings the energy."
Balancing when to be loose and when to be focused, Scott has no trouble finding the line.
"He's one of those guys when we're in the locker room, we're joking, we're having fun, we're laughing, as soon as he flips that switch, everybody else flips that switch with him and that's the things he carries with him on the field with him as a special teams leader and one of the guys the freshmen look up to," Thompkins said.
Learning from Johnson
For true sophomore Miles Sanders, having patience in his development from last year to this year has been a humbling experience. Working his way on to the field in his true freshman year last season proved anything but easy, as he navigated challenges along the way.
"Last year, my freshman year, I put the ball on the ground a couple of times, this year one time and you can't let that affect you because someone is always watching you," Sanders said. "So it's about always keeping good body language."
During the offseason, Sanders opted to work on the mental side of his game, then altering his body language too. Preparing to be ready whenever his number was called, Sanders looked toward someone like wide receiver Juwan Johnson.
Working with Johnson throughout the offseason, Sanders took note as the wide receiver who had two receptions in 2016, grew into one of McSorley's key targets with 48 catches for 635 yards and of course, his first career touchdown, a game-winner in the final seconds of a tense road victory at Iowa.
Just as much as Sanders sees in Johnson though, he sees the same in perhaps his newest post-practice catching partner.
"Miles is special," Johnson said. "The big thing about him is he had to be patient and that's the one thing about him, you have to maximize your opportunity so whenever you get the ball, I just told him you have to maximize it because you never know when you're going to be back in the game or what have you."
Sanders has continued to grow, having opened the season with three carries for 44 yards and a touchdown against Georgia State before rushing for a then-career high six times for 25 yards against Michigan. He closed out the regular season with 42 yards on seven carries at Maryland, also grabbing a 3-yard pass.
While Johnson still has yet to decide who might join him on the field post-practice, he noted that Sanders is a good suggestion.
"Anyone is welcome who wants to work hard," Johnson said. "DaeSean [Hamilton] and Mike [Gesicki] were a huge impact on me in catching the ball and just being there for me and the talks after practice. Anybody who wants to work hard and have a good conversation after practice is somebody that I would like to have in the group."
Conversation with Sandy Barbour
Penn State Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour met with media members following the Fiesta Bowl media day session to discuss a variety of topics both within the department as well as across the greater collegiate athletics landscape. Listen in.
and Senior Carry-Off
As is tradition, Penn State swapped all kinds of jerseys on the practice field this afternoon before closing out the final full Fiesta Bowl practice with a unique ceremony. Each senior on the team is able to select which group of teammates will carry him off the practice field while the entire team watches and cheers along.