Five minutes into his introductory press conference on Jan. 11, 2014, James Franklin made a seven-word proclamation that resonated with high school coaches, prospects — and opponents — across the commonwealth.
“We are going to dominate the state,” Franklin said.
Those final three words took on a life of their own. They became a hashtag on Twitter and landed on T-shirts. It became the mantra of Franklin’s recruiting push at Penn State.
But the seven words that followed “dominate the state” are often forgotten. “We are going to dominate the region,” Franklin added. That philosophy has been just as important to the Nittany Lions’ success, and maybe no surrounding state has been more vital than New Jersey.
Penn State has made the Garden State a pipeline while towering over Rutgers for years. And with the Scarlet Knights traveling to central Pennsylvania for Saturday’s expected one-sided affair, the spotlight on Penn State’s supremacy becomes even more evident.
Since 1978, seven of Penn State’s 45 consensus first-team All-Americans have hailed from New Jersey high schools. In the same span, Rutgers has two total first-team All-Americans — and neither of them come from the Garden State.
In the past five years, Penn State has nabbed nine of ESPN’s top-10 New Jersey recruits. Rutgers has only three.
It’s not just Penn State that beats the Knights from Piscataway, either. Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin, as well as other national powers, have set up camp in Rutgers’ backyard.
But the Nittany Lions have consistently plucked Jersey’s top talent like tomatoes. And because of two pillars — comfort and success — everyone from recruiting analysts to the state’s high school coaches know that Penn State won’t stop reaping the benefits of being the region’s best option.
“You have a built-in advantage at Penn State,” said Brian Dohn, Scout/247 Sports national recruiting analyst. “Like they have down at Alabama, or at Miami in south Florida, in L.A. for USC, you have a built-in advantage. You are the most visible program in the Northeast.”
Added Nunzio Campanile, head coach of powerhouse Bergen Catholic: “They check a lot of boxes for a kid from New Jersey if they’re looking to get out of their home state or just a great opportunity to play big-time football.”
Campanile — who’s in his eighth season at Bergen Catholic after serving as a decade-long assistant at national juggernaut Don Bosco Prep — grew up in New Jersey when the only team on TV was Penn State. A 9-year-old when the Nittany Lions won the 1986 national title, Campanile saw them command the region. He understands the clout Penn State has in Jersey.
Really, everyone in the area gets it. In Dohn’s words, back in the day, “When Rutgers was playing Lafayette and Cornell and whoever-Maritime, Penn State was playing to go to bowl games.”
Consequently, Penn State has developed a rabid New Jersey fanbase. According to the alumni association, a total of 29,686 alumni currently live there — the most of any state outside of Pennsylvania. The sight of the Nittany Lions on TV is familiar. The program has forever been the flagship football school in the region.
So many in the state are comfortable with that fact. And that’s really where the recipe for recruiting success starts: Comfort.
Penn State is less than a four-hour drive from New Jersey, and there’s value in that. Parents want to be able to hop in the car, see their sons play and head home postgame. Most recruits, meanwhile, want to get away without being too far from home.
“It’s not too big of a leap,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom VanHaaren said. “To recruit that area for Penn State, it makes perfect sense.”
And for the state’s talent, it makes perfect sense, too.
Penn State has 16 players from New Jersey on its current roster, the most of any state outside of Pennsylvania. Seven are consistent starters — tight end Mike Gesicki, offensive linemen Will Fries, Steven Gonzalez and Brendan Mahon, wide receiver Juwan Johnson, and linebackers Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen — to go along with key contributors Saeed Blacknall and Irvin Charles.
“It’s loaded,” said Ed Guerrieri, Blacknall’s coach at Manalapan High School. “They’re the who’s who.”
Each Jersey guy on the team came to Penn State not because they were pushed to, but because they were, well, happy in Happy Valley.
Cabinda got acclimated with Penn State by rooming with Oakcrest product Brandon Bell, while Gesicki grew up watching a hometown Nittany Lion. Glenn Carson, a stud linebacker from 2011-13 at Penn State, started at Gesicki’s high school, Southern Regional in Manahawkin.
Of course, the two committed to different coaches. Carson was coached by both Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien, while Gesicki was recruited primarily by O’Brien and is now learning from Franklin.
But Chuck Donohue, the 19-year coach of Southern Regional, noticed similarities in both Carson and Gesicki’s recruitment.
“They both came back from Penn State and felt comfortable with the players, felt comfortable with the environment,” Donohue said. “From my perspective, I want those kids to go to a place that they’re going to happy, excited about going to. You can tell when you’ve known a kid for six or seven years if a kid is struggling with the decision and when he’s comfortable with his decision. Both of those kids found their place that was good for them.”
Blacknall’s another one who eventually found his place.
Now a senior at Penn State, the sought-after wide receiver had offers from Alabama, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and more as a high school junior. On Aug. 10, 2013, he chose to commit to Rutgers — the school 30 minutes away — in spite of that national interest.
But Blacknall had a solid relationship with Franklin. He unofficially visited Happy Valley seven days after the coach was hired. Eight days after that — and a week before National Signing Day — he decommitted from Rutgers and picked Penn State.
“It was tough, but I saw what they had going on here, even with what happened with the sanctions,” Blacknall said. “I still felt like it would be a better fit to come here than to just stay home. And my mom said, ‘You can stay home if you want, but it’s best if you go somewhere else.’”
Part of that is on Penn State’s presence, and part of it is Rutgers’ lack of influence.
The Scarlet Knights, who’ve reached one bowl game since joining the Big Ten in 2014, have seen hordes of talent leave the state.
Penn State is poaching plenty of players, but so are other schools. Look at Michigan, who’s snagged Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary in recent years. Notre Dame starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush is from New Jersey. Ohio State took Eli Apple, and Alabama stole Minkah Fitzpatrick, while Wisconsin nabbed noteworthy running backs like Corey Clement and Jonathan Taylor.
“If you look at some of the rosters across the country, had Rutgers been able to hold those guys home,” VanHaaren said, “man, they’d have a talented, talented roster.”
Naturally, guys like Donohue feel a need to be loyal to the Scarlet Knights. Even though it may not feel that way in recruiting, Rutgers is the in-state school. Coaches will encourage players to at least consider Chris Ash’s program.
But ultimately, not even they will sway prospects to stay at home.
“You have to have Rutgers at least in your top 5,” said Rob Davis, Bowen’s coach at Barnegat. “I’m not saying you have to go there, but you still have to entertain and look at Rutgers. Manny did that. He went there and did all that stuff. But stability is the key. Penn State has stability right now with what they’re doing. ... That’s huge.”
Added Donohue: “I want (Rutgers) to be just as good as anybody in the country. I really do want that to happen. But when you’re a high school coach, I don’t think anybody owns the kid. I don’t think anybody owns the rights to a kid. You have to earn that. You have to win that. You have to win kids over. That’s what recruiting is. ... I’m just not a fan of, ‘You’re from New Jersey, you have to go here,’ or, ‘You’re from Iowa, so you have to go here.’ I don’t agree with that. I want our kids to visit Rutgers out of respect for our university and how hard those coaches work. I want them to visit there. But after that, I believe it’s up to the kid and the family and what fits best.”
And more often than not, for the four- and five-star prospects, the best fit hasn’t been Rutgers.
VanHaaren likes what Ash is doing, “not trying to swing for the fences” and instead seeking talent the Scarlet Knights can get and win with. From there, Rutgers is laying a foundation.
But in the meantime — and by all accounts, in the future — Penn State’s lurking. Especially considering its recent on-field prosperity.
After winning a Big Ten championship last year and being in the College Football Playoff conversation each of the past two seasons, Franklin and his program are “giving legitimacy” to their reputation, according to Campanile.
“When you see a program in your backyard that’s up there in the top 5 or 10 in the country, that turns some heads,” the coach said.
Added Guerrieri, Blacknall’s coach: “What they’ve done with that program, considering where they came from with the sanctions and everything else, it seems so far away and so long ago. It’s amazing how far they’ve come.”
As Rutgers rebuilds, the Nittany Lions are thriving. And with five-star wide receiver Justin Shorter committed to the 2018 class and more coming in 2019 and beyond, that isn’t going to change any time soon.
Franklin and his staff aren’t “reinventing the wheel” of recruiting, per Dohn. “What he’s doing isn’t extraordinary,” the analyst added. “He’s just good at what he does.”
Four years ago, Franklin set out to not only take care of the commonwealth, but also “dominate the region” — to strengthen Penn State’s already solid footing in the state of New Jersey.
“As they continue to make that state a priority going forward,” VanHaaren said, “as long as they can hold up the on-field success and show these kids they’re able to continue to win at a high level, I think they’re going to see a lot of prospects come in.”
Added Franklin: “We’ve got a lot of respect for the state of New Jersey from a high school play perspective. ... It’s something that’s going to continue to be very, very important for our program.”