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Chicago — When the NCAA dropped a four-year bowl-game ban and a massive reduction in scholarships on Penn State back in the summer of 2012, the notion of the Nittany Lions winning a Big Ten championship — let alone being relevant in the conference — seemed like something that would take multiple years to become a reality.

However, in the fifth season since the initial punishment from the Jerry Sandusky scandal were levied, Penn State won the conference championship game and took a trip to the Rose Bowl.

As the 2017 season approaches, the Nittany Lions have two of their top players back — quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley — and the heightened expectations of a team looking to repeat.

“Obviously last year was a special season for us, and we're really, really pleased with the positive step that we took in the right direction,” coach James Franklin said at Big Ten media days on Tuesday. “But it's really just that. It's a step in the right direction.

“We still have a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas. I think we've made significant strides in a fairly short period of time in three years. And the exciting part is really we just continue to grow in every area, from a facility standpoint, from an infrastructure standpoint, from a support standpoint, from recruiting, from a development standpoint in terms of our players on and off the field. Coaching staff, we were able to keep our entire coaching staff intact. Those things are really, really important for you to continue growing and evolving.”

It’s been a quick rise for Penn State after Joe Paterno retired in the wake of the scandal.

Bill O’Brien had two respectable years, winning eight games in 2012 and seven a season later before leaving to become the head coach of the Houston Texans.

In stepped Franklin, who got the Nittany Lions to a bowl game in each of his first two seasons but did little to make anyone believe a championship was in the making. That changed a season ago, sparked by the win at home over Ohio State in late October and capped with a Big Ten championship game victory over Wisconsin.

Now, instead of surprising people, the Nittany Lions are expected to contend. It’s something Franklin says is par for the course in State College and something the players relish.

“I think the expectations are always pretty big at Penn State,” Franklin said. “I think where it's probably changed is nationally. I think there's more people nationally talking about Penn State right now than probably in years past. But one of the reasons why we came here is because we love the expectations. We embrace those expectations as coaches.

“And I think the players, the same thing. They came to Penn State to be a part of this type of program that is working really, really hard to have a chance to compete for Big Ten Championships and have an opportunity to be a part of playoff conversations. … I think our guys embrace it.”
 
Wildcat wisdom

As a young wide receivers coach at Northern Illinois, P.J. Fleck was looking for advice on what it took to become a head coach. In stepped Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who had just finished his first season leading the Wildcats.

On Tuesday at Big Ten media days, Fleck recalled how Fitzgerald took him out to lunch in Chicago to give him some advice. To Fitzgerald, it was clear Fleck was headed for success.

“I saw a guy that was very driven,” Fitzgerald recalled. “He wanted to learn and grow and ask me questions about how I manage things as a young head football coach and how I do things on a day-to-day basis with the staff, all the way to the players, everything in between. 

“He's worked hard. He's earned it. The great success they had at Western, and now to have the opportunity that he has at a great university like Minnesota, couldn't be happier for the guy and for his family, and I'm sure he'll do a great job.”
 
Captain fantastic

At Nebraska, one of the primary offseason goals was to find a replacement for quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. It turns out the Cornhuskers didn’t have to look far.

That’s because former Tulane transfer Tanner Lee quickly endeared himself to his teammates and after sitting out last season has quickly established himself as a leader — of the team and in the quarterback race.

“His entry has been impressive in just the simple fact that he became a good teammate,” coach Mike Riley said. “He became immediately well liked and through time became very well respected, enough so to be elected at one of our — not our seasonal yet, but our offseason captains for our offseason conditioning program. 

“He earned that (job through good competition in our spring ball to be our starting quarterback heading into the season.”
 
Kill re-emerges at Rutgers

After taking a year off, former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is back in the Big Ten as offensive coordinator at Rutgers.

Kill has epilepsy and it often created issues for him, more than once forcing him to leave games while leading the Gophers. However, he’s back to try and breathe some life into a Rutgers offense that was last in the Big Ten in scoring last season, averaging just 15.7 points a game.

For Rutgers coach Chris Ash, hiring Kill was a no-brainer.

“When Jerry and I started having conversations, it didn't take very long into those conversations to know this was going to be a good fit and it's what our football team needed at that time, specifically our offense really needed at that time,” Ash said. “He's brought leadership. He's brought confidence. He's brought a head coach's view to the offensive side of the ball.”
 
mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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