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Column: Staying power

Southwest Airlines missed a unique marketing opportunity after NCAA president Mark Emmert administered sanctions against Penn State.

Gerald Hodges and other team leaders will be remembered for sticking with the program.

The old commercials that ended with a "DING" sound and the "You are now free to move about the country" slogan could have easily applied to the Nittany Lions, who were given free reign to transfer to any institution they chose without having to sit out a year.

But, in what came as a surprise to some and no surprise to many, the vast majority of Penn State's players took their free tickets to anywhere and decided not to move an inch.

As of this writing, the list of players who decided to leave the program stood at eight, a list that includes two players who were projected to start (Silas Redd and Anthony Fera), a third who would have likely seen significant reps (Khairi Fortt), a promising defensive line prospect who had only been on campus for a month (Jamil Pollard) and a walk-on defensive back who will get an opportunity to be a scholarship player at N.C. State (Tim Buckley).

Others could still decide to follow them out the door, but eight players out of 114 (a number that includes the incoming freshmen) is a number that Penn State should be able to live with. Still, there's no question that the departures will have an effect on the 2012 Nittany Lions and future squads.

But what if it's a dual effect?

Regardless of how well Bill Belton, Curtis Dukes, Zach Zwinak or Akeel Lynch are able to perform this season, Penn State's backfield is a lot weaker without Redd than it would have been with all of those players plus Redd. There were going to be some growing pains and an adjustment period for Bill O'Brien's new offense even had Redd stayed, and a player who had repeatedly demonstrated the ability to pick up tough yardage, hit the right holes and play consistently from down to down, game to game would have helped ease many of those growing pains. Fera's ability to rocket the ball 50 yards downfield with solid hang time would have been useful, too.

Penn State should be more than fine at linebacker with Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson, but Fortt's exit takes depth -- proven depth, at least -- away from a position that has relied on that depth for the last several years. The departure of a walk-on safety wouldn't be a big deal for the Nittany Lions in most years but this is not most years for the secondary, which will need all the able bodies it can get.

So yes, from a pure X's and O's standpoint, the sanctions, via the transfers, have weakened the 2012 roster. Those sanctions might have made the team stronger in another way, though.

When O'Brien opens practice on Monday, he will know that every player there wants to be there. The players will look around and know that they are playing alongside guys who have the same goals as they do. The idea of coming together for a common cause can be a very potent one in team sports, especially football. The Nittany Lions already feel that few teams have had to deal with as much as they have dealt with over the last several months and the idea that they're battling a system designed for them to fail, as Mauti suggested last week during the Big Ten Kickoff, could serve to rally them even more.

The players that stayed will face a number of challenges. But they'll also be remembered in a way that few other Nittany Lions will be. If Mauti or Hodges never make another tackle as Nittany Lions, they'll still hold places in Penn State lore for the way they fought to keep the team together during the summer. A lot of Penn State fans are questioning what loyalty means in a way they never had to before this year, and the players who ignored the phone calls or campus visits from other programs and elected to finish what they started are either validating those ideas of loyalty or helping fans build new definitions of the term.

If the 2012 season were a video game, Penn State would have a much harder time winning games than most thought two weeks ago. But real-life football has a lot more to do with what's going on inside a player, and while the sanctions have cut into the Nittany Lions' roster, they also might have lit a fire inside the players who stayed that won't be easy to put out.

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