Consider the state dominated. At least this time around.
Three early Penn State enrollees were joined by 22 more prospects who signed National Letters of Intent on Wednesday with nearly half of them hailing from the Keystone State. In doing so, Penn State coach James Franklin made good on the bold declaration he made when he was introduced as the Nittany Lions’ head coach more than a year ago to dominate Pennsylvania’s recruiting circuits.
After seven of Pennsylvania’s Top 10 players locked in their commitments to the Nittany Lions, Franklin and the rest of his staff who’ve crisscrossed the region the last few months, allowed satisfaction to creep in.
“You make it a priority to keep the best players in this region home you're going to do that,” Franklin said. “And I think we can do better going forward.”
They did much better considering the past when former staffs didn’t fare nearly as well within the confines of their own state.
The last four recruiting classes included just one Top 10 Pennsylvania product each year. Safety Troy Apke (ninth in 2014) was the last. Tight end Adam Breneman (third in 2013) and receiver Geno Lewis (fourth in 2012) preceded him. Shawn Oakman (sixth in 2011) never played a down for the Nittany Lions.
Now, cornerback John Reid, offensive linemen Ryan Bates and Sterling Jenkins, defensive lineman Ryan Buchholz, linebacker Jake Cooper and running backs Saquon Barkley and Andre Robinson, all Top 10 Pennsylvania players, will join Apke, Breneman, Lewis and the rest of the Nittany Lions.
They’re joined by linebackers Manny Bowen (Barnegat, N.J.) and Daiquan Kelly (Newark, N.J.), tight ends Nick Bowers (Kittanning) and Jonathan Holland (Brandywine, Md.), receivers Irvin Charles (Sicklerville, N.J.), Juwan Johnson (Glassboro, N.J.) and Brandon Polk (Ashburn, Va.), defensive linemen Kamonte Carter (Silver Spring, Md.), Kevin Givens (Altoona), Shareef Miller (Philadelphia) and Robert Windsor (Fond du Lac, Wisc.), offensive linemen Steven Gonzalez (Union City, N.J.) and Paris Palmer (Plymouth, N.C.), defensive backs Jarvis Miller (Suffield, Conn.), Ayron Monroe (Largo, Md.), Johnny Petrishen (Lower Burrell, Pa.), Andre Robinson (Mechanicsburg) and quarterback Tommy Stevens (Indianapolis) to round out the 2015 class.
Jenkins, Palmer and Stevens already are enrolled.
Due to the abolishment of the consent decree that reduced Penn State’s scholarship numbers the last three seasons, Franklin said Penn State was able to push some of the early enrollees back to count toward last year’s total. That would open up “we think two” more scholarships in the current class, Franklin said.
The Nittany Lions picked up a late verbal commitment from soon-to-be Stanford graduate offensive lineman Kevin Reihner on Tuesday night. But since Reihner is still enrolled at Stanford, NCAA rules prohibit Franklin from addressing his status. He is expected to join the team in March and Franklin said the team “could” use a scholarship on a graduate transfer who would be eligible to play immediately.
Franklin could say with relative certainty why Penn State was able to establish a bigger footprint in its home state. By using an all-hands-on-deck approach — multiple assistants plus Franklin reach out to each potential recruit — Penn State’s staff is able to establish more familiarity with each player. In addition, should one coach leave, that player still has a comfort level with Penn State because he’s gotten to know multiple coaches, not just one recruiter.
“I want the recruits and their parents to really not be sure who is in charge of their recruitment,” Franklin said. “That they just feel like they have a relationship with so many different people on the staff. Their position coach, their recruiting area coach, the offense or defensive recruiting coordinator, the offensive and defensive recruiter, the head coach, I am actively involved with every single one of these guys.”
Of course, it helps when more than a quarter of the staff hails from Pennsylvania. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is from Oakmont and Franklin split most of his childhood in the eastern part of the state but his father was from Pittsburgh. Terry Smith and Brent Pry are from Monroeville and Altoona, respectively.
Smith not only played at Penn State, he’s spent his entire coaching career within Pennsylvania borders with coaching stops at Hempfield High and Gateway High before coaching wide receivers at Temple in 2013. He, along with receivers coach Josh Gattis, also serve as Penn State’s recruiting coordinators. Smith helps recruit defensive players while Gattis handles offensive players.
“It proves what our plan was worked,” Smith said. “Now we want to make sure we execute it again. We don’t want to forget about our home state.”
Smith described it as a “high expectation” when Franklin made his famous vow. But he had faith that relationships he and some of his colleagues already had on Pennsylvania recruiting trails would pay off. He also had confidence they could establish new ones.
And that wasn’t simply by visiting schools or areas simply to talk to one particular player or coach. Smith mentioned the multiple coaching clinics the staff put on in the offseason and the team’s trip to the Hershey Children’s Hospital in July as events that gave Penn State a presence in those communities.
But keeping the pipeline for the state’s elite to get to Happy Valley is still the priority.
“We recruited the state hard,” Smith said, unable to put a number on the number of in-state schools he visited. “We got into so many different high schools. Talked to coaches, talked to guidance counselors, principals. Even schools that didn’t have kids this year. Because you just never know where these kids are going to come from. So we made a conscious effort to build the relationships and make sure Pennsylvania people knew Pennsylvania was important to Penn State.”
But flag-planting is a fluid process that requires constant work to keep lines of communication open and relationships alive. Despite Penn State’s in-state success during this recruiting cycle, Smith wasn’t ready to say it would make the next one any easier.
And some of the burden will eventually fall on these players. It’s their job to raise their own profiles on the field.
“It’s a long-term process,” Smith said. “As we recruit these guys now, in a year, two years, three years from now, these guys have to show the fruits of the labor and be on the field performing so it will really make a difference two, three years from now when they actually see these guys on the field performing.”