Ayron Monroe stood by his locker, deep in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, grinning widely.
A redshirt freshman, his Nittany Lions had just knocked off Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship to earn a trip to Pasadena, Calif., and a Rose Bowl date with Southern Cal. In the game itself, Monroe had played a small role, checking in with two assisted tackles on special teams in the come-from-behind, 38-31 win.
Simply thrilled to have been a part of a team that exceeded any and all expectations through hard work, Monroe’s glee was attached not only to the accomplishments of the evening, but also of the potential now so clearly in line for the future.
This, he said, was why he came to Penn State in the first place.
“When I got here, it was a program that you could see was going to move into the right direction but it had to do a lot of work before it got there. And now, a lot of people thought it would take longer than it did but obviously it didn’t,” said Monroe. “I knew and people knew that this program was going to go back up. That’s why I came here. That’s why I gave it my time of day to say I want to go to this school. Because I knew we were going to do great things.
“I knew I would be around great people. And I knew I would have moments like this. This soon? I didn’t know, but I just knew it was going to happen. It’s happening now and I’m embracing it.”
That embrace has, according to head coach James Franklin, especially manifest itself through the offseason.
Meeting with the media earlier this week to preview the team’s start to spring practices, Franklin was asked to detail some of the younger players coming up at the wide receiver position. With it, he discussed Saeed Blacknall, Juwan Johnson and, eventually, Irvin Charles.
Part of his answer, however, detailed the maturation process Charles had gone through personally in the offseason. And with the association, Franklin made an unprompted trip to the other side of the ball to reveal the growth he’d also seen in his young safety, Ayron Monroe.
“Ayron Monroe is another guy, that my meeting with him last night, I texted Coach Banks that I was kind of just blown away by some of the things that were coming out of Ayron Monroe's mouth," said Franklin. "Perspective and growth and maturity and really taking an honest look at himself and strengths and weaknesses and where he needs to improve. It's really cool.
“That's kind of what I love about college football. You kind of go into these guys' homes and you kind of recruit them, and they come here and they get humbled and they have to work their way up and you see them growing in all these different areas and kind of got a good feel of what their strengths and weaknesses are before they show up.”
Lining up as a safety last season, Monroe dipped his toes into the start of a Penn State career expected to be productive. Playing mostly on special teams, Monroe was twice named a special teams player of the week for his performances against Maryland and then again alongside Von Walker as a special teams player of the week following the Lions’ upset win against Ohio State, “just because those guys play on almost every single unit and really played well,” said Franklin.
Monroe finished the season with 12 tackles and one pass breakup.