The hardest thing in college football? James Franklin may finally own it. Here's how ...
It's the Penn State offensive line, of course. Nothing has ever seemed to go as planned for this group, to develop as expected, to perform as required, since James Franklin arrived.
It's starting left tackle was suddenly playing like the first round NFL Draft pick experts say he may truly become ... only to be lost to injury. Who knows if Olu Fashanu will play Saturday against Maryland , or at all the rest of this season − or ever again in a Penn State uniform?
His replacement is a kid even younger, whose high school career careened from Downingtown to Florida and back again. His COVID recruiting tape? Drew Shelton was reportedly featured doing pass-blocking drills against his sister in the backyard.
Franklin told the story during his weekly press conference and smiled. "And she won a few reps, to be honest with you."
He smiled again because now he finally can.
He has more play-ready talent than ever in the toughest position group to recruit, even for an ace recruiter. Finally, he has workable depth, too. He seems to have a fit with young line coach Phil Trautwein.
They appear to finally be building more than just a quick-fix.
Why are things different now?
Fashanu is one reason. He was a very good recruit out of Maryland but not a national gem. He was a non-factor last season, another unknown. But then he earned a starting role in the bowl game against Arkansas and in the beginning parts of this season and he's performed so well, has made so much of his NFL-to-be body, that he could be the program's first big-money offensive line draft pick in 15 years.
Shelton is another reason. A true freshman asked to do about the toughest thing in Power Five football: start at left tackle when you've hardly played any meaningful downs.
But he's not only that talented and mature, he's developing quickly, too. Just like Fashanu. Shelton held down his spot the entire way against Indiana with barely a meaningful misstep. He seems ready to roll if anyone can't go the rest of the way.
"He's been phenomenal. Our strength coaches early on identified him as a guy they were really excited about in terms of his work ethic and demeanor and approach," Franklin said. "The veteran players were talking about him. .... He's been preparing all season for his opportunity."
Then there's Hunter Nourzad, the grad transfer from Ivy League Cornell. He could have been just a one-year plug-in, a short-term fix. He fought through injuries this year, too. He's started some games. He's played well enough.
But most importantly, he'll be back in 2023 − taking advantage of his extra COVID year of eligibility. That could mean everything. He'll work on his master's degree in business and give this group a top-grade starter.
It's all about this, too: Now, when things keep going wrong, it doesn't feel as if it will all fall apart. Like when Franklin announced that promising guard Landon Tengwall, one of the better recruits in the nation a couple of years ago, will miss the rest of the season.
He just underwent surgery for an undisclosed injury − one suffered in pregame warm-ups, if you can believe.
The kind of thing destined to derail Penn State in previous seasons.
But Tengwall hasn't played or started a game in a month, and the Lions have kept finding replacements and continued to produce their best blocking work lately.
And to think that three of the nation's top high school blockers will join this group soon enough, including Reading area's Jven Williams. The kind of talent expected to be able to contribute right away, just like Shelton and rookie Vega Ioane and junior college transfer J.B. Nelson have done this fall.
They could end up as valuable luxuries. Because senior Juice Scruggs, the nation's top-rated center last weekend, may return next season with his COVID eligibility. Same for versatile senior Bryce Effner.
Maybe even Fashanu, too. He's barely 19. He's only started nine games in college. He still needs to earn his degree.
Maybe. And yet, for once in forever, Penn State probably doesn't really need to worry about any of that. They truly should be OK without them.
As strange as that may seem to be.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.