Before last Saturday's game versus Michigan, Penn State honored a senior class of 19 members who were about to play in their final game in Happy Valley. Plenty has been written about the significance of this class, the final group of seniors who were recruited by Joe Paterno. Their importance to Penn State football and legendary status in the history of the program was determined long before this past weekend.
On the long drive home Saturday night, I found myself thinking not only about what guys like Anthony Zettel, Jordan Lucas, and Kyle Carter have meant to this program, but also how key a senior class is to the success of a football program. Of the 19 members of the football class of 2015, only nine came to Penn State as scholarship players. Carl Nassib would later earn a scholarship and graduate transfer Kevin Reihner joined the Lions after his four-year career at Stanford wrapped up. Every member of this group has made an impact, but what keeps coming back is the number nine.
We all know the circumstances that lead to such a small group, but the impact of that on the field was so apparent during the loss to Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines, one of the more senior laden teams in the country. Not only did the Lions take the field with a small senior class, they were without Lucas due to injury and Nassib only saw limited snaps. Throw in the season-long injury to junior linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, and, well, you know the rest. Contrast that with Michigan, who by my count had seven starters on offense and six more on defense in their fourth or fifth years of eligibility. In fact, Harbaugh's starting lineup only had two underclassmen (OL Mason Cole and S Jabrill Peppers). Only five underclassmen have started a game for Michigan this season on offense, with Cole being the only one to do so consistently. Peppers has been the only regular underclassman starter on the defensive side of the ball.
This is to take nothing away from the job the new staff in Ann Arbor has done, nor is it to make excuses for more coaching blunders and mistakes. But when you walk into a situation with that kind of experience, it matters. Penn State's 2012 team was very much in the same boat, with seniors littered all over the roster. Of course, Bill O'Brien and his staff did a masterful job in one of the most challenging situations ever faced by a collegiate coaching staff. However, I do not believe it is a huge stretch to say that team does not go 8-4 (and very nearly 10-2) with a roster dominated by underclassmen. Heck, the season following the departure of the 2012 seniors, the Lions fought hard just to get to 7-5.
That experience is not only huge on the field, but also in the development of younger players. Many Nittany Lion fans surely noticed one-time recruiting target, Grant Newsome, seeing spot action for Michigan on Saturday on the offensive line. Yes, Newsome is contributing as a true freshman, but he's doing it in specific spots, alongside plenty of experience. In Penn State's case, they are relying on those young players, oftentimes alongside other young players.
The Lions have also failed to get the type of contributions you would expect from their few upperclassmen. Since a standout freshman season, Kyle Carter has been plagued by injuries, and never recaptured his 2012 form. The elder statesmen of the offensive line have never consistently found their footing. Jordan Lucas struggled through his own injuries for much of the year after moving to safety. And of course, Wartman-White was lost for the season on opening day. Whether it be a lack of development, injuries, or simply maxing out the ability they have, Penn State has been forced to rely on their younger players more than anyone would prefer.
One of the reasons 2017 has been singled out as the season to look forward to is it appears to be the first season in years where the roster will have a more typical split between the upper and underclassmen. If you wanted a preview of what that 2017 season might bring, you only had to look across the field at the opposing sideline last Saturday.