Penn State head coach James Franklin has flourished on the recruiting trail in his first few months in Happy Valley. The former Vanderbilt leader had a strong close to the 2014 cycle, despite taking the job less than four weeks before national signing day, and is off to a tremendous start with 2015 prospects.
The Nittany Lions landed 12 commitments between Feb. 15 and April 12, assembling the foundation of a class that already includes nine 4-star pledges. The group rates No. 3 nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings, trailing only Auburn and Alabama.
Franklin's haul features a majority of players from the Northeast, where Penn State must annually contend with Big Ten rivals. The arrival of Rutgers and Maryland into the conference increases an already competitive recruiting landscape.
Participants at the Nike Football Training Camp in Florham Park, N.J., on Sunday traveled from Maryland, Connecticut and locations between. The group of Northeastern standouts assembled at the New York Jets headquarters and said Penn State's new staff has quickly made inroads.
"It's kind of crazy," 3-star running back Jonathan Forrest (New Rochelle, N.Y.) said. "Coach Franklin just got over there and he's bringing in a lot of guys from the Northeast. I'd like to look at them and see what I can offer. He's been doing a great job so far."
Penn State already holds two 2015 pledges from New Jersey, fresh off a 2014 class that featured four Garden State standouts. Jarrett Guarantano, a 4-star sophomore quarterback who competes for northern New Jersey powerhouse Bergen Catholic, believes there's a big draw for Lions recruiting targets.
"It's about how honest they are, and how family-oriented they are," Guarantano said. "Penn State really wants to win and they want to find the best players to make an impact early. That's appealing to any of the athletes they offer."
Ravaged by Paterno era sanctions, Penn State has seen its number of scholarship athletes dwindle. There are holes to fill, which opens the door for immediate opportunities.
"(Franklin) thinks I've got a good chance to start early, and that was a big factor in my decision," Penn State commit Ryan Bates said.
The 4-star offensive tackle from Pennsylvania was one of several Nittany Lions commits in attendance for NFTC action. He was joined by Archbishop Wood High School (Warminster, Pa.) teammate Jake Cooper, wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Glassboro, N.J.) and running back Saquon Barkley (Whitehall, Pa.).
Other coveted attendees, such as 4-star tight end Chris Clark, took notice. The Avon Old Farms (Conn.) product has eliminated Penn State from his options, but he understands why prospects are jumping on the bandwagon after his campus visit in March.
"I can see why (Franklin) is getting a lot of commits," Clark said. "He's a really passionate guy. He really wants to win too, so I can see why kids want to go play for him."
There's something to be said for a program's ability to build recruiting momentum within a region. Players keep tabs on their peers, and Penn State suddenly has an apparent "cool factor" within the Northeast high school football community.
"Right now it seems like the place to be," Brooklyn athlete Deonte Roberts said.
Jordan Fox, an impressive linebacker at St. Peter's Prep (Jersey City N.J.), attended a February junior day in Happy Valley. He explained the allure that has helped secure a stunning series of commitments in a short span.
"Coach Franklin and his staff are great because they just harp on the family atmosphere. They'll make you feel comfortable and build relationships you feel are everlasting. They make you feel at home, and that's a great feeling when you visit campus. I think that's why so many guys are committing right away."
Bates, one of the initial three 2015 prospects to pledge to Franklin on Feb. 15, credits the coach's vision for the successful recruiting stretch.
"Coach Franklin is first and foremost," Bates said. "It's impressive what he did at Vanderbilt, turning the program around. He's going to do the same thing at Penn State, and everyone wants to be a part of it."
The Nittany Lions are intent on luring a number of regional targets to campus next year. Philadelphia phenom John Reid is paramount among Penn State's defensive prospects.
The 4-star cornerback visited Happy Valley earlier this year. His offer list includes Alabama, Miami, Michigan and Notre Dame, but he views Penn State as a strong contender.
"The big thing for me is the campus and the people there," Reid said. "There's a lot of things to like about Penn State. They're coming off difficult stuff that happened with the program, and Coach Franklin is rebuilding it. It's a great situation."
An area once dominated by the Big East has quickly transitioned into Big Ten territory. That's good news for other conference mainstays such as Michigan and Ohio State, but those programs will have a hard time competing with the proximity that Penn State offers.
Bates believes conference expansion will eventually vault the Big Ten to the college football recruiting mountaintop. He asserts Penn State is ready to lead the charge.
"It's not going to be the SEC anymore, it's going to be the Big Ten," he said. "Penn State—Big Ten Championships and National Championships."
Those are certainly lofty ambitions, but it's the kind of belief system that Franklin aims to embed in recruits across the region. So far, that seems to be an effective mission for the first-year coach.
*All quotes acquired firsthand by B/R recruiting reporter Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.