Penn State Football Recruiting: James Franklin's 1st Class a Promising Sign

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2014

Jan 11, 2014; State College, PA, USA; James Franklin is announced as the Penn State Nittany Lions new head coach during a press conference at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

No first-year coach's recruiting class is ever truly his. Coaches typically set up in their new digs in December or January, with barely more than a month to prepare and an overwhelming number of potential targets having already verbally committed to their destinations. 

Recruiting classes for first-year coaches are often ugly, disjointed and, at times, utterly nonsensical. They mix ideologies of regimes current and past in an unnatural way, sometimes leading to awkward personnel fits and a higher-than-average transfer rate.

Even before arriving at their perspective campuses, there is a natural inclination for players to pursue other options, out of the (very often correct) fear that the new regime will favor their guys.

This is especially true for Penn State. The Nittany Lions are entering Year 3 of the unprecedented NCAA sanctions handed down in wake of the Jerry Sandusky investigation.

Good behavior was cited in allowing the school to increase its scholarship total incrementally, but two more seasons will pass before Penn State can even participate in a bowl game and the team will still be at a competitive disadvantage for the foreseeable future.

Nov 30, 2013; Madison, WI, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien talks to quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) during the game with the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Penn State defeated Wisconsin 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Mary
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

So, perhaps more than any other program in the country, recruits were not committing to Penn State. They were committing to a coach. One with NFL experience. One who had worked with Tom Brady. One who sat down with his 2013 recruiting class and had an agonizing meeting with his commitments and their parents, in which he answered every one of their questions without blinking.

The program and the players were married to Bill O'Brien.

And that makes what James Franklin has done in his short time as O'Brien's replacement all the more impressive. Franklin took over for the new Houston Texans coach on Jan. 11—with less than a month to go before Wednesday's national signing day.

He tirelessly worked phones, sold highly touted O'Brien recruits on his style, coaxed some of his Commodore commits to head to Happy Valley and did all the unbearable political nonsense that comes with being the head football coach at The Pennsylvania State University. 

Franklin, 42, did this all without complaint. Positivity consumed his press conferences, his interactions with fans and students in State College and his energy on the recruiting trail. Unlike O'Brien, Franklin knew completely what he was getting into. He was ready to embrace the challenge after a three-year stretch at Vanderbilt, where he turned the perpetual doormat into an AP Top 25 team in each of the past two seasons.

"Our recruiting philosophy," Franklin said at his introductory press conference, "we are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region. ... That is going to be our plan, and I'm calling all the high school coaches. I'm calling all the people in the state that we need to come together like never before."

Following Wednesday, the proof is in the numbers. Penn State ranks 24th in the Class of 2014, per 247Sports, nestled behind only Ohio State and Michigan among Big Ten teams. The 25-player class is highlighted by a number of high-profile O'Brien leftovers, like quarterback Michael O'Connor, and eight new players recruited in just a three-week span, five of whom flipped from Vandy. 

"It's kind of surprising how many of us really did follow, but it's not surprising," Trace McSorley, a 3-star quarterback recruit, told ESPN's Josh Moyer. "It's just the kind of guy Coach Franklin is. He's energetic; that's the reason everyone wanted to go play for him at Vanderbilt." 

Four-star defensive end Nifae Lealao and safety Emmanuel Smith were the two biggest names to remain committed to the Commodores, but Franklin's work was nothing short of miraculous. He was not only able to land old players with whom he had a relationship but also 4-star wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, who flipped from Rutgers to Penn State last month.   


The Lions quietly accumulated one of the best wide receiver classes in the nation, highlighted by Blacknall and fellow 4-stars De'Andre Thompkins and Chris Goodwin. That won't entirely atone for the loss of standout wide receiver Allen Robinson, who left following his junior season and is expected to be an early-round draft pick, but it's a start. 

"When you have a quarterback like [quarterback Christian] Hackenberg, it helps you recruit, but it's also a responsibility for us to surround that guy with as much talent as possible," Franklin told ESPN's Adam Rittenberg

We'd be remiss here, though, if a high percentage of the credit did not go to O'Brien. There is a loud, boisterous and mostly idiotic sect of Penn State fans and alumni who recoil at crediting O'Brien with anything out of their sheer displeasure that he did not spend five decades coaching their team.

Nov 16, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) warms up prior to the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Beaver Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The more rational realize that O'Brien was left with an impossible job under impossible circumstances—replacing a still-deified legend while having his power wiped out by the NCAA—and did it far better than anyone expected.

He turned Matt McGloin into a starting quarterback. He landed and kept Christian Hackenberg. He worked unenviable hours selling kids and their parents on Penn State, fostering and holding together a recruiting class when it's quite obvious he had at least one foot or both feet out the door.

Franklin's job in 2014 was to begin his own sales process. First, by reaffirming the stellar assemblage O'Brien had waiting in the coffers. Next, by beginning his so-called "domination" process by proving he can do a little recruiting out on his own. Eight recruits in three weeks and a Top 25 class sure goes a long way in engendering the confidence he's been exuding since arriving in Happy Valley. 

"I'm just focused on Penn State and doing the best job we possibly can," Franklin said, per Rittenberg. "The more days that we have like this, attack the day with everything we've got, academically, athletically, socially and spiritually, the Saturdays will start taking care of themselves."


(All recruit information is courtesy of 247Sports.)

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