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Optimism reigns with Penn State's football team

| Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, 6:06 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Allen Robinson (8) eludes Indiana Hoosiers defenders behind on a 53 yard 2nd quarter touchdown pass during their game at Beaver Stadium in University Park on November 17, 2012. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

In the afterglow of one of the greatest wins in Penn State history, Matt McGloin, the Nittany Lions' record-setting and outgoing quarterback, made a prediction.

“No one's going anywhere after tonight,” McGloin said.

That remains to be seen, as now comes the hard part for a program that must operate under severe NCAA sanctions for the next three years. Underclassmen are free to transfer without penalty until the start of next season, and coach Bill O'Brien and his staff must replenish a talent base with limited scholarships.

The rapture generated by an 8-4 season capped by a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin will inevitably ebb. And the reality that Penn State will be at a competitive disadvantage for at least the next three years will challenge O'Brien on two fronts: retaining his core players and bringing new ones.

“I'm sure everyone wants to stay,” freshman tight end Jesse James said. “Everyone loves each other. We're one family, one team.”

James is one of the players who provides hope for the future.

The South Allegheny graduate has the look of an emerging star, and he is part of a nucleus that includes receiver Allen Robinson, running back Zach Zwinak, defensive end Deion Barnes, left tackle Donovan Smith, cornerback Adrian Amos and linebacker Mike Hull.

Zwinak rushed for 1,000 yards despite opening the season on the lower rungs of the depth chart, and the redshirt sophomore said opposing coaches shouldn't bother inquiring about his interest in transferring.

“I made the commitment (to stay at Penn State), and I'm going to finish it out,” he said.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said the way Penn State finished its season shouldn't be underestimated when it comes to other players feeling the same way.

The question that will linger concerns O'Brien's future.

The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator is a candidate for national coach of the year honors. There has been speculation an NFL team will pursue him as a head coach even though he has eight years left on his contract and a buyout that would cost him more than $9 million if he left after one season.

O'Brien has not commented, adding to fans' anxiety. But the seniors who provided a foundation that could keep Penn State competitive until it sheds the albatross of sanctions expressed confidence that O'Brien isn't going anywhere.

“The morale is high. The guys are loving every second of it,” senior running back Mike Zordich said. “We've got great coaches who have awesome relationships with the younger players, and there's a lot of talent. It's going to be tough, but I have no doubt in the bond between the coaches and players.”

Neither does senior Stephon Morris.

“It's not just one team for 2012,” the cornerback said. “That goes on, so when we say ‘one team' when we break the huddle, that's 2013, 2014.”

O'Brien will start on 2013 this week when he conducts exit interviews with underclassmen. He and his staff also will hit the road to recruit as they try to capitalize on a season that exceeded expectations.

“We hit the ground running basically on Monday,” O'Brien said. “I think we accomplished a lot this year, and hopefully we can go into the offseason and figure out what we can do better. Every team is different, so every year is different, and so next year's team will obviously be a lot different than this year's team. Who knows, we might come out in the wishbone.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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