After a series of recruiting home runs, James Franklin & Co. experienced their first recruiting strikeout at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions were building one of the nation’s top 2015 incoming classes. They still have one, but it became marginally less impressive when four-star Indiana linebacker Josh Barajas decommitted Friday and instead gave a verbal commitment to Notre Dame.
Word leaked in the morning, and Barajas has made it known on his Twitter account. Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly even tweeted his version of James Franklin’s now-famous “#WeAre… Better!” to alert the world of a new prospect commitment.
Penn State dropped to No. 3 in the national team 2015 recruiting rankings compiled by Rivals and 247. Clemson passed the Lions – although the Tigers got a commitment from a four-star wide receiver Friday so might have jumped PSU regardless. The Nittany Lions had held the No. 2 spot for most of the past couple months.
Barajas was a rated as a four-star prospect by each of the four major recruiting service websites, and his ranks both among Indiana players and national linebackers were exceptionally high.
As for the level of surprise associated with Barajas’ flip… the answer is a seemingly-dichotic combination of “none at all” and “eyebrow-raising.”
When he announced his verbal commitment March 30, it was a big surprise to those in the recruiting community. He was widely projected to be headed to Notre Dame, and even his high school coach was saying that, too, as recently as days before word came about Barajas telling Franklin he was going to be a Lion. He lives less than 70 miles from South Bend. Those at Penn State who knew Barajas – none that I talked to had a bad word to say about him – say proximity to campus and family influence played a factor in his “flip.”
But while Barajas choosing Notre Dame wasn’t shocking – Franklin letting a prospect slip through his grip is a little surprising. His aggressive recruiting style has been wildly successful both in three years as the coach at Vanderbilt and in his first 4 ½ months in State College.
But it’s not without its risks. Having kids commit so early leaves an eternity of time for other coaches and programs to pillage them – or just for one of them to have a good, old-fashioned change of mind. Still, in the often-fickle, sometimes-underhanded world of recruiting, incoming players say Franklin takes a commitment seriously – and expects them to, too. With the fluid nature of the puzzle pieces that need to fall into place, a decommitment can reek havoc with a coaching staff’s plans.
“There are only two things you have in your life, that is your word and your reputation,” Franklin said. “I would rather a kid not commit to us if he’s still looking around and wanting to go through the process. I think there is nothing wrong with that. If you’re not sure that’s what you want to do, keep looking around until you figure it out.
“But, once you stand up and shake my hand and look me in the eye and say this is where you want to go, we’re engaged. There is no more dating and there is no more flirting. Come Signing Day, we get married, and there is no divorce.”
Apparently, Kelly and Barajas kept up their courtship. That said, don’t blame Kelly. If you’re a Penn State fan, you’ve seen plenty of examples of Franklin’s “flipping” prowess already – and you’ll surely see more. This is the system that is in place – one of non-binding, verbal commitments until Signing Day in February – and coaches and prospects all live by it.
Plus, remember, it’s not as if PSU won’t be fine without Barajas. It still has a consensus top-three class in the country and still has plenty of positive momentum. Also, don’t blame Barajas – none of his now-former future teammates (huh?) have publicly wished him well.
“We are all still very committed to psu,” New Jersey four-star offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez said in a message to the Trib. “And we understand Josh’s decision, and we are all just family.”
Eastern Pennsylvania three-star linebacker and PSU commit Jake Cooper tweeted: “We lost a good one today and best of luck to (Barajas) as he takes his career to the next level with Notre Dame. “WEAREstill107kstrong”
Maryland three-star defensive end and PSU commit Jonathan Holland also tweeted well-wishes to Barajas . Then he added what became a popular refrain among the remaining 15 prospects in Penn State’s incoming Class of 2015: “At the end of the day, #WeAre still 107k strong, #WeAre still family, and #WeAre PENN STATE #WeAreStillPennState #107kstrong”
There’s still seven-plus months until signing day, so a lot can happen. But at the moment, Barajas’ departure leaves Penn State again thin at linebacker. The Lions practiced with just four scholarship linebackers this spring, and the unit’s best player is a fifth-year senior. Just two linebackers are set to enroll later this summer, and Cooper is lone linebacker in the Class of 2015 at the moment.