When it comes to recruiting, we have a major developing story happening in Happy Valley. A narrative that I’m of the opinion hasn’t gotten enough play – both locally and nationally.
A purportedly-unanimous consensus is building that Penn State is putting together one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Following the news of the Saturday verbal commitment of New Jersey offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez, just look at where the Nittany Lions’ Class of 2015 has ascending in the national rankings: No. 2 by 247, No. 3 by Rivals and No. 3 by Scout. From what I can tell, ESPN, which is generally considered one of the “Big Four” of the recruiting sites, hasn’t yet ranked the Class of 2015 by school. But you can track how many of “The ESPN 300” top recruits have chosen each school. And only one program – Texas A&M, with seven – has more than Penn State’s six.
Penn State is one of only two schools in the nation (interestingly, West Virginia is the other) to have already secured 10 verbal commitments from 2015 prospects.
To use Rivals.com as the standard ranking, each of the top four Pennsylvania 2015 prospects to commit have chosen Penn State. As an aside, all four also had offers from Pitt; in fact, when it comes to recruits who were offered scholarships by both Pitt and PSU and have already committed, the score is 8-0.
But for all attention in these parts about Dominating the State or throwing down gauntlets is getting, coach James Franklin & Co. are seemingly setting their sights much higher. Why compete with Pitt when it’s heavyweights like Alabama, Ohio State and South Carolina that can be taken down? PSU is competing favorably with those national powers, beating them head-to-head for kids in some cases.
Seemingly every time there’s a campus visit, a player commits. Gonzalez was thought to be a heavy lean toward Ohio State… then he steps foot in University Park, and everything changes. In just 11 weeks on the job, Franklin and his staff have secured 19 commitments to Penn State (nine signed in February as part of the Class of 2014; 10 are verbally committed to next year’s class now). During Bill O’Brien’s final 11 months at Penn State, he induced 16 kids to commit to Penn State who ultimately signed there.
When it comes to so-called blue chippers… the comparison is even more extraordinary: O’Brien’s staff, in almost exactly two years on the job, secured eight Rivals four-star recruits to come to Penn State. In 11 weeks, Franklin already has matched that number.
Now, pointing this out is not at all fair to O’Brien (for one thing, he and his staff did achieve a holy grail that has thus far eluded Franklin: One five-star recruit). Mostly, though, it’s important to note that O’Brien was operating under a great deal more challenging circumstances: The Jerry Sandusky scandal was much more raw, scholarship reductions were far greater, the NCAA four-year bowl ban was much more restrictive to kids entering the program in 2012 or ’13 than it is to those who will in ’14 of ’15 (there’s a chance they might not have to deal with a bowl ban at all).
Still, at the moment, the Nittany Lions still are prohibited from postseason play each of the next two seasons. That is just scratching the surface on what makes this recruiting run so remarkable: It’s been done while PSU’s coaching staff has been handicapped by the remaining NCAA sanctions.
Penn State has fewer scholarships to offer and a bowl ban still officially in effect. It’s coming off a 7-5 season that, while that’s better than many expected and commendable under the circumstances, is piddling compared to the likes of the national championship-caliber teams it’s beating in recruiting.
So not only are Franklin and his staff “dominating” (sorry) recruiting – they’re doing it with a figurative hand tied behind their backs. Imagine what they can do on equal footing with everyone else? And after they’ve adapted to the Big Ten landscape and to Pennsylvania’s recruiting culture. After they’ve had enough time on the job to so much as move into a permanent home.
What’s more, this class is far from finished. Of both national significance and local note, PSU is hot on the trails of Central Valley defensive back Jordan Whitehead and Baldwin tackle Sterling Jenkins. Each is a Rivals four-star and among the top six prospects in Pennsylvania. And they aren’t the only high-profile targets from across the country.
Look, no one recognizes that it’s only still March 2014 than me. These Class of ’15 rankings mean little until Signing Day next February. And even then, star rankings and projections don’t necessarily correlate to on-field performance.
But all we have at this point is a season of recruiting. And thus far, while operating under some relatively trying restrictions, James Franklin and his staff are – as they predicted – dominating at it.