UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As Penn State's annual senior day came and went this year, Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin opted for a different approach when asked about his first class.
By a simple season count, sure - it's Franklin's first class, as the fourth-year head coach prepares to lead the Nittany Lions to their second consecutive New Year's Six bowl appearance.
When asked during a Wednesday post practice session earlier this season though, Franklin replied it's actually not his first class, noting instead, it's auspiciously blended with previously committed recruits as well as a few from the previous institution and even some signed in the mad recruiting scramble after he arrived on location in Happy Valley.
He made no shortage of comments on how impactful the class has grown to be, but either way, a deeper look at the 2017 senior class reveals something truly remarkable.
What's revealed is a group of young men who were all presented with a unique challenge, one familiar to those before them, and by the end of their journey, one forever unknown to those who will come after them.
To put it simply, these seniors arrived in Happy Valley in perhaps some of the most uncertain conditions, committed to the promise of potential. Through ambiguity, they carried on, ushering in an era that some might even go so far as to call a rebirth.
Their stories are all unique. While some surround surging success, others are spotted with adversity.
By now though, they are the stories most Nittany Lion fans know by heart.
The common theme among them all? The will to win, and heart to never give up along the way.
It was between Penn State and Ohio State during Mike Gesicki's recruiting process. Ultimately opting for the Nittany Lions, he did so to the tune of a collection of Ohio State fans reaching out telling him to have fun losing to the Buckeyes for the next four years.
"When we beat them my junior year and ended up going on to win the Big Ten Championship, that was kind of something that I held close to me just because I remember everybody saying that we weren't going to be able to do it," Gesicki said. "Everybody doubted us. Nobody even thought that was a possibility. For us to be able to achieve what we were able to achieve in these past four years is really special to me."
For DaeSean Hamilton, Grant Haley and Jason Cabinda, there was of course, the same excitement surrounding their Penn State decisions but questions still lingered as they signed on without even so much as the promise of a postseason bowl game.
"I think coming to Penn State now, it's easy," Gesicki said. "I think now, if you don't go to Penn State it's like what are you doing, why would you not want to go to Penn State. We had 111,000 people at a game this year in a stadium that's supposed to hold only 107,000. There's so many reasons why to pick Penn State now, dating back to just four years ago when my class was picking Penn State, there were so many reasons why not to pick Penn State but we understood what potential we could have coming here together as a class and we were able to do it."
As with most things in life, the seemingly overnight success didn't happen overnight.
"Guys had been through multiple head coaches so you could see a difference between player personalities and the way people were toward the coaching staff," Haley said. "I don't think anything was different for me, but for them you could tell. There was something in their mind that was kind of holding them back a little bit and really becoming that Penn State brotherhood from freshman to senior class where everyone is so closely connected."
Penn State went 14-12 in the first two years of their Nittany Lion careers, with scholarship reductions and injuries opening opportunities for members of the now-senior class to be thrust into major roles.
They rose to the challenge.
"When we first got here we had seven or eight guys play our freshman year and played a good role - started some games and stuff like that and played really big roles on special teams," Cabinda said. "It started there."
Cabinda didn't start the first four games of the season his true freshman season, but can remember clearly to the day when he got the call. The Friday before Penn State's home outing against Northwestern, Sept. 27, 2014.
"Friday comes around and the redshirt lift is at 6 a.m., so boom - I go and I do the redshirt lift," Cabinda said. "I get out of class and coach [Brent] Pry calls me around 9:45 a.m. and says hey, you're starting tomorrow. Meanwhile I just did heavy squat, heavy deadlift and my legs are shredded apart. [Dwight Galt] calls me as soon as I get out of class and he says hey, we need you in the building, we need to regen you. He throws me in the ice tub and I think was sitting in there for like 20-30 minutes trying to get my legs back."
He can even remember the day Marcus Allen got the call up too.
"I still remember when Marcus [Allen] got his first start against Ohio State in a white out," Cabinda said. "He was freaking out before that game. I will never forget the anticipation for him that week before when [Ryan] Keiser went down. Everybody just had his back, supporting him, saying you got this, you're ready for this moment and all those kinds of things. Without your teammates, I don't know if you can go out there and perform."
Undoubtedly, it's the bond between teammates that kept the foundation solid, as a once young group continued to grow from those who came before them.
For Gesicki, it was Jesse James.
"It's the older guys who are there for you," Gesicki said. "When I was a freshman here, Jesse James was a huge role model for me and a guy who I looked up to. You kind of see it go full circle when I'm the old guy and a guy like Danny Dalton comes up here his freshman year and he hits that freshman wall and then he tries to talk to you about it and you've been there before, you've been on the other side of that conversation."
For Cabinda, it was Mike Hull.
"I think to me, a guy who really affected me, affected my mindset, the way I look at the game and the way I prepare, that's Mike Hull," Cabinda said. "There's no doubt about it. Seeing that guy work, seeing the way he played, he left it out on the field day in and day out."
Ask any senior and names like Michael Mauti, Allen Robinson and Anthony Zettel will all come up, often followed by the stories of how they helped shape the mindset and work ethic of a soon-to-become senior class who would continue to carry on an already proud tradition of grit and tenacity in the face of adversity.
"I think coming in with this class, when we came in we had goals of changing his program around and it took a year to two years to really get to that point but I think deep in our hearts we really knew that we could change this program around," Haley said.
Following a 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer bowl, there were still plenty of questions remaining as the 2016 season rolled around.
"Going into the going into the third year of our season with the coaching staff, is was like kind of a question mark there," Haley said. "Like what are we going to do, how are we going to turn this around and get Penn State back to where we want it to be and obviously last year, even the first four games, it was tough. We were 2-2 and a lot of people were down on us."
By Oct. 22, 2016, momentum shifted, as the Nittany Lions upset then-No. 2 Ohio State at home in a thrilling 24-21 comeback win for the ages.
"Playing Ohio State last year, it was a special moment," Haley said. "I think for me, it was just all shock. There's a culture change because everything just came and fell into place. Almost two years earlier, the struggles that we had, barely making it into bowl games, 7-6 records."
Surely, the Ohio State victory takes a rightful place in history, but for a few of the seniors though, there were moments prior to the stunning win where the feeling of something special sparked.
"The game that everybody forgets about is the Minnesota game in which we're losing at halftime, we haven't really got anything going yet and we put together a second half come back and we ended up pulling that one out in overtime," Gesicki said. "Without that game, it doesn't matter if two weeks later we beat Ohio State, because without winning that game, there's not the excitement that comes along with being Big Ten champs because we wouldn't have made it there."
Through the 2017 regular season, including conference championship games, Penn State is 21-5, which is tied for the eighth-best record in FBS during a two-year stretch from 2016-17. Among just five losses across two seasons, the last three have been by a total of seven points.
More than any win total, championship or record set in the record book could every showcase though, is the lasting legacy the group of seniors will leave behind.
On Wednesday, Penn State welcomed 21 Nittany Lions in a 2018 signing class ranked the highest in program history since rankings began in 2000. On Saturday, Penn State will pack its bags and hit the road, with an intriguing matchup against No. 11 Washington in the 47th annual Playstation Fiesta Bowl on the horizon.
With one final thing left to do, for these seniors, perhaps all that really remains is passing the torch.
"You look at what we came in here saying we wanted to and then being able to do that, it's a huge accomplishment in itself," Cabinda said. "To us, the most important thing is being able to pass along that torch, making sure it's something these guys can pass along and make sure they remember the values, our roots and what got us here to begin with, so we can continue the success and bring the longevity back to Penn State that we all know."
There's still work to be done though, leaving no time to look back and no time to reflect.
That moment though, will come.
"Obviously when the guys leave here, after our bowl game and our last game together, we'll sit back and we'll talk about it and cherish it for a little bit. I think I'll really sit back and think about it when there's really nothing else that I have to do and I just relive my college days and what we were able to do here," Hamilton said.