Penn State coach Franklin looking ahead, not at Lions’ past success

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UNIVERSITY PARK — It would stand to reason that the biggest intangible challenge facing the 2017 Nittany Lions will be to manage expectations they haven’t faced since, oh, say the mid-1990s.

James Franklin, however, doesn’t see it that way.

After Saturday’s Blue-White Game, in which the Blue pitched its third shutout (26-0) in four years and has now outscored the White 117-7 in Franklin’s tenure, the Lions’ boss stipulated that last year’s Big Ten championship is in the past and is not a subject for reflection.

In fact, the team got their championship rings at a picnic (for 700) Saturday evening, “And then we’re never going to talk about the Big Ten championship again,” Franklin said. “We’re fully on to 2017.”

Interesting, since Penn State has already announced that the 2016 team will be honored during Pitt’s visit on Sept. 9, at which time last year’s league title will be adorned along the suites with the school’s other championship years.

Most figure the Lions will enter the fall toting a top-10 ranking, maybe higher, but the message has already been made clear: Rankings and pollsters won’t make first downs.

“(Expectations are) no different than last year,” Franklin said. “We’re not going to talk about preseason rankings. Preseason rankings mean nothing. Look at last year. We’ll approach next year like they’ve accomplished nothing. The 2017 hasn’t accomplished anything. That’s our approach.”

It’s rubbing off.

“There’s no looking back,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “It seems like the Big Ten championship was a couple years ago.”

Receiver DeAndre Thompkins, who is among the candidates expected to pick up the slack for NFL-bound Chris Godwin, said the Lions are not limiting their goals.

“I think we go into the season with higher expectations than anybody else,” he said. “We set a standard that maybe some people feel are absurd, but we demand a lot from ourselves. Our expectations are super high but not unrealistic.

“Do you want to settle for a Big Ten championship or do you want to go to the national championship? We don’t want to settle. We always have a higher ceiling. You love to be in the Big Ten championship, but your ceiling is higher than that.”

Linebacker Koa Farmer said the Rose Bowl, even in a 52-49 loss, was a building block.

“It wasn’t a heartbreaking loss because that was a great game,” he said. “That was a show. We’re going to stay humble and look forward to this season. Our expectations are we’re trying to win a national championship. We came close last year. We went to the Rose Bowl and won the Big Ten.

“We’re back,” he added for emphasis. “Penn State’s back. That shouldn’t be a conversation.”

Consequently, if you think the Lions caught Ohio State napping just long enough to make the Buckeyes pay in the season-shaping win for the ages, it’s clear they will not be able to surprise anybody this year.

“We’re going to get everybody’s best shot every game,” Thompkins said.

Pry concurred, saying, “There might be a little bigger bull’s eye than there’s been in the past.”

Pry, though, thinks the Lions are poised to counter their schedule, which figures to play tough with trips to Ohio State, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State complementing home dates with Michigan, Nebraska and Pitt.

“We’re producing a better product ourselves,” he said.

Thompkins said the spring tone emphasized “staying hungry,” and Pry said the staff tried to address the template that saw the Lions start slowly in most games last year.

“We’ve got to come out of the gate better,” he said. “We wanted to start practices and particularly scrimmages on a better note. We’ve looked at what we called early in games, our focus, matching the speed … we’ve made some progress there.”

Franklin, meanwhile, is focused only on a global picture of the program that stresses “a championship lifestyle” on and off the field.

“We’re trying to maximize each day,” he said. “If we do that, Saturdays will take care of themselves.”

In 2016, that was definitely the case. It will be a hard act to follow.

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Neil Rudel covers Penn State football from the Altoona Mirror.

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