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June 10, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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The importance of New Jersey and Maryland to Penn State

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Speaking at a May alumni stop in Baltimore, new Penn State coach James Franklin famously said: “I consider this (Maryland) in-state. I consider New Jersey in-state. I know there are other schools around here, but you might as well shut them down.”

 

Big words – particularly for the universities of Maryland and Rutgers, which officially join the Big Ten three weeks from now. But thus far, Franklin & Co. are backing them up on the recruiting trail. They have four New Jersey verbal commitments for 2015 (all in that state’s top 10, per Rivals; Rutgers has zero in the top 10) and three Maryland recruits (two in the Rivals top 10; Maryland has none).

 

New Jersey and Maryland have always been extremely important to Penn State’s football success. But with the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights now conference rivals, will that affect the Lions? Will it be easier recruiting against them (the ability to say your games on the Big Ten Network will be on in your area, plus you’ll be back for a game every other year) – or more difficult (rather than play for a perceived lesser-conference team, now a prospect can “stay home” and still play in the Big Ten)?

 

That’s up for opinion/debate and is subjective. Over the next two days, I’ll go through and examine just how much of incoming recruiting classes over the past decade have been via the neighboring states to the south and east. Today is focusing on the 2014 roster and on-field contributors from these contiguous states. Tomorrow is the pure recruiting data from the recent past.

 

 

A couple things to note:

1. The combined population of Maryland and New Jersey is about 14.8 million, which is about 2 million more than live in Pennsylvania. However, that’s still a pretty apt comparison, seeing as how, after all, Penn State is, well, in Pennsylvania, so you’d naturally be compelled to think that it would more often get more players from its home state. So for the purposes of this blog, PA and Md/NJ (call it New Mary or JersMary?) are equal.

2. The lists of starters/contributors, of course, can change by the time the season starts. I tried to be as flexible as possible. Apologies in advance to, say, Anthony Smith, if he ends up starting all 12 games or to Antoine White if he is a contributor at defensive tackle as a freshman.

3. I used Penn State’s official roster for the home state tallies, although I had to add in the incoming freshmen for this fall for the “total players” and scholarship-player numbers. I will not assume that any of the players who enroll later this month will start or contribute for this list (although I will say that I do expect several to – I just am not gonna play that projection game just yet for a kid who hasn’t enrolled or gone through a practice yet, OK?).

4. The term “starter” is a hazy one, particularly in today’s world of multiple sets and packages on both offense and defense. So, for the purposes of this discussion, yes, two tight ends, for example, can be starters (good thing Kyle Carter is from Delaware or it’d look even more awkward!)

5. I did not count Washington D.C. for Maryland’s total (sorry, Jordan Smith).

OK, first off, the 2014 roster.

 

PENNSYLVANIA

Total players: 45

Scholarship players: 18

Starters: 9

Other significant contributors: 2

 

NEW JERSEY/MARYLAND COMBINED

Total players: 25

Scholarship players: 22

Starters: 8

Other significant contributors: 5-6

 

The total players number for Pennsylvania is inflated because of the high number of in-state walk-ons you’d probably see anywhere. What’s more important is the scholarship players and the starters, which are roughly even (I’ll go more in depth below) – and it’s notable that it appears as if there will be more scholarship Mary-Jers players on the field for PSU this season than those from Pennsylvania. Furthermore, as I’ll note below, even the Pennsylvania scholarship total is inflated because of at least five players who earned scholarships after enrolling at Penn State (a phenomenon far more likely for in-state players, judging by a much larger pool of PA walk-ins alone). However, just because guys like Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle didn’t have scholarships when they set foot on campus shouldn’t take away from the fact that each was good enough to be a starter, at times, in 2013. So I won’t discount such players at face value.

 

 

Here’s the breakdown:

 

PA

Projected 2014 starters from Pennsylvania (9): DE Deion Barnes, TE Adam Breneman, G Miles Dieffenbach, LB Mike Hull, TE Jesse James, S Ryan Keiser, WR Geno Lewis, OT Andrew Nelson, LB Nyeem Wartman

Projected 2014 non-starters but significant contributors from Pennsylvania (2): S Jesse Della Valle, LB Ben Kline

 

 

NJ

Projected 2014 starters from New Jersey (4): LB Brandon Bell, RB Bill Belton, DT Austin Johnson and (at least) one of OL Wendy Laurent/Angelo Magiro/Brendan Mahon

Projected 2014 non-starters but significant contributors from New Jersey (3):  DE Garrett Sickels, S Anthony Smith and (at least) one of those three linemen listed above.

 

 

MD

Projected 2014 starters from Maryland (4): DB Adrian Amos, OT Donovan Smith, RB Zach Zwinak, CB Trevor Williams

Projected 2014 non-starters but significant contributors from Maryland (2): WR Richy Anderson, DB Da’Quan Davis

 

 

Ironically, the balance of “starters” power between PA and NJ/MD could hinge merely on what formation Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan use for the first play of the game. Zwinak and Belton aren’t on the field together too often (although I suppose it’s possible), but if PSU goes with two tight ends and two wideouts, then Anderson, maybe, creeps in. Or, conversely, maybe Breneman is left out.

 

Regardless, we’re mincing words here. The point is, the combined empire of Maryland/New Jersey is, it appears, arguably just as important (if not moreso) to Penn State in 2014 than its home state is.

 

Tomorrow, I’ll break down recruiting classes over the past decade – who comes from Pennsylvania and who comes from New Jersey or Maryland.

 

 

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May 30, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s still-stellar 2015 recruiting class just got a little smaller and a little less stellar

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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.

 

Check out this quote from Franklin, to PennLive.com’s great PSU reporter Audrey Snyder in March:

 

“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.

 

 

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May 29, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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New PSU president Eric Barron on Franklin, Paterno and (kind of) Joyner and Freeh

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New Penn State president Eric Barron is on record in the past that he believes successful athletics is important to a university. Judging from my interpretation of an hour-long interview several Tribune-Review reporters conducted with him Thursday, Barron’s recognition of sports is more than mere lip service.

 

Barron repeatedly referenced sports – sometimes, just in passing; other times, to drive home a point or make an analogy – over the course of a wide-ranging discussion in the Trib’s D.L. Clark Building offices. Barron, of course, was here to talk about more than – and more important things than – just sports. Some of the Trib’s finest newsside reporters ,Debra Erdley and Adam Smeltz, detailed that. As the lone reporter representing sports (although two Trib sports editors were present), I’ll offer some of my initial impressions of Barron’s opinions of the athletics issues facing Penn State.

 

The main bar for the Sports section for Friday’s print editions mostly is centered around Barron publicly supporting the idea that the NCAA sanctions levied on the football program be softened when former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell releases his next PSU athletics integrity progress report in August.

 

While, on face value, this might not be surprising – after all, shouldn’t a sitting university president be expected to always stand up for the school and its best interests? You’d think, but remember, it was Barron’s predecessor, Rodney Erickson, who himself signed the consent decree for the penalties in July 2012. Since, Erickson’s public tact has more involved a conciliatory we’ll-take-what-they-give us tone toward the NCAA than one in which he publicly campaigned for sanctions relief. Barron, initially at least, appears to opt more for the latter. (To be fair, for a variety of reasons the political airs have evolved sharply over the past two years toward a more pro-Penn State, anti-NCAA position being given sympathy).

 

Here are some of Barron’s other football-related thoughts:

 

“I’ve seen or heard nothing that would make me question it.”

 

  • On his initial meeting with Franklin:

“I have had lunch with him, and I was impressed with how student-centered he is. And to the degree to which one of his objectives is to break the all-time record for the grade-point average for football. And we had discussions on lots of different topics, including if a student doesn’t go to class, how do you get them to go to class. And now we could apply this to people at 8:00 in the morning and have them run laps if they don’t show up for class – I don’t know if it would work. But we talked about a lot of things like that, and I felt very good about the lunch that I had in terms of his attitude and his focus and what his objectives are. And of course he’ll be tested very publicly, won’t he?”

 

 

  • On if he sought personal assurances from Franklin that he was involved in no wrongdoing in connection to Vanderbilt rape case:

“This was not a, you know, ‘Let’s walk through this,’ kind of case… we didn’t talk that way.”

 

  • On how he plans on dealing with the issue of Joe Paterno’s legacy at Penn State:

“It’s a completely different situation, but when I was shortlisted to be president at Florida State, Bobby Bowden was fired two hours before that meeting. And partly from the viewpoint no president would take the job if they had to deal with a legend. And I quickly realized that about 35 percent of the people thought that was outrageous, and 35 percent of the people felt it was high time, and the 30 percent in the middle were silent. And so you’ve got, really, a lot of opinions, and it took three years to get to the point where Bobby came back. Right, to my wife’s credit, to the point of her calling up Ann Bowden and having lunch with her twice, and it doesn’t work to sit there and do it on the – no offense – on the front page of a paper, and it doesn’t work with saying, ‘I’m going to go do this and this.’ This is a period of healing, and it takes time. But you can count on the fact that it’s important to me and I’m going to do my best to help.”

 

  • Barron was asked a follow-up to press on dealing with the Paterno situation:

“You’ll have to give me time. I haven’t been here very long, and I just described a three-year process for someone who was fired. And this is, you know, more sensitive, and does take time. I will say this: Every single one of those alumni, no matter where they sit, cares deeply about the institution. That’s, at least, a foundation for moving forward, I think, in very positive ways. Every single person, they’re motivated by their love of the institution. So I can think a lot of conflicts that sometimes can be managed if you don’t have that foundation at all. I’m optimistic that we will make improvements but I’m not going to give you a time schedule or a process.”

 

  • On the status of the athletic director’s position (Penn State awkwardly removed the “acting” from Dave Joyner’s title in January 2013… but at the same time stated that when a new university president took over in mid-2014 that a “national search” would be conducted for the position):

“I know what president Erickson announced, including that when the new president comes in, that’ll be time for a search. And we have other positions that are also an interim basis, and so I’m busy doing my assessment, and I tell people I would have to be convinced not to follow through on what president Erickson said.”

 

  • Finally, Barron was asked what his reaction was to the Freeh Report:

“Anybody who’s been at Penn State or near Penn State or certainly graduated from Penn State felt just an incredible amount of pain and sadness. It’s awful. And obviously I wasn’t here as the institution went through that, so I just saw from afar in terms of that level of pain. And I saw a lot of alumni because one of the things you realize even though you’re a dean and people look at you and you’re fundraising and I’m talking about you and about giving back – and then I leave and some people that will sit there and say, ‘OK, so he was fundraising for them, but he didn’t care about me as a person.’ I think one of the things about the Penn State family is you really do care about people as people, and so even though I was at a completely different institution, I’d go visit Penn State alumni and go have dinner with them and sometimes stay at their homes because these are friends – and this hurt. So wherever you look there was that pain because nobody sees Penn State that way.

But beyond that, I came in 2 ½ years later and, so what is my reaction to the Freeh Report? Well, my reaction is there were 119 different recommendations and I’m looking at a spreadsheet that says, ‘We’ve done this, we’ve done this, we’ve gone beyond on this one, we’ve created this, these four are pending but the following actions have already taken.’ And I’m looking at it and saying, ‘How on earth could an institution manage that in such a deliberate, aggressive fashion to make sure this doesn’t happen?’ And not an instance that is focused on this event, but rather focusing on an institution in which this ethical standing is extraordinarily important.

So truthfully my reaction to the Freeh Report was, ‘This institution has just become a model institution for addressing issues like them.’ Because what I saw first was all the steps that they had taken.”

 

 

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May 27, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Uplifting Athletes: An example of the good coming from Penn State football

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Penn State football, of course, has had its share of negative publicity over the past 2 ½ years. But it shouldn’t be forgotten there’s plenty of good to come out of the program and the school.

 

There’s THON, a wonderful and highly-successful university-at-large student-run philanthropic endeavor that’s not football program-centric. For a nationwide program that was started at Penn State by Penn State football players and is administrated today by current Penn State players, check out the work being done by Uplifting Athletes.

 

Penn State football players have raised more than $825,000 for kidney cancer patients over the past 11 years, dating back to the forerunner of Uplifting Athletes (which has chapters at 22 universities – including Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Florida State and Notre Dame – listed on its website).

 

According to the site, the vision of the Uplifting Athletes multi-university organization dated back to Penn State’s Lift For Life, which began in 2003 after then-PSU wide receiver Scott Shirley was informed that his father, Don, was diagnosed with incurable kidney cancer.

 

The Lift For Life has endured since, raising increasing amounts of money for raising awareness and research opportunities for those affected by kidney cancer, which is classified as a “rare disease.” Each school’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes aligns a college football team with a different rare disease, which UA defines as a disease that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans and consequently lacks financial incentive to make and market new treatments (combined, almost 30 million Americans are affected by rare diseases). Shirley serves as Uplifting Athletes’ full-time executive director.

 

The organization has moved past just Penn State, but the Nittany Lions’ chapter is thriving. Linebacker Ben Kline serves as president, with running back Deron Thompson the vice president, tight end Adam Breneman secretary, tight end (and South Allegheny HS alum) Jessse James the director of marketing, running back Akeel Lynch the compliance manager, among other officers.

 

“It’s something that’s been kind of passed on here for the last 12 years, and it’s been something that a lot of guys put a lot of time into and done a really good job with it,” Kline said. “And the guys who did it while I was here – (former PSU offensive linemen Mike) Farrell and (Eric) Shrive and (Adam) Gress and Ty (Howle) and (linebacker) Glenn (Carson) – those are some of my best friends, so to see the time they put into it, my group of friends that’s kind of doing it now wants to do a good job with it and make sure that they everything that the guys put into it before us kind of got carried on. And that’s kind of how we see our responsibility with it and that’s why we are trying to do as good a job as we can with it.”

 

Kline deflects any credit for any of Uplifting Athletes’ accomplishments, saying being president “is just a title” and that “everyone on the team is really into it… we do a good job of sharing the responsibilities.” He was asked to serve as president by this past season’s outgoing officers, and Kline got his circle of friends within the team on board.

 

“They said, ‘Would this be something you’d be interested in and your crew would be interested in?’” Kline said. “And I said, ‘yeah,’ and kind of one thing led to another and then I was a president. And the rest of our crew kind of rounds out the board and the rest of the team does an awesome job of doing everything we can to help out people who are affected by kidney cancer.”

 

Lynch, for example, said Kline, a redshirt senior, approached him about joining the board. “I said, ‘Sure,’ because Ben’s a good guy and I’ll definitely follow his leadership.”

 

Penn State linebacker Mike Hull remembers the meeting that Shrive and others called to recruit their successors as the officers/caretakers of Uplifting Athletes before Shrive and others graduated. Hull, the defense’s 2014 captain and a Canon-McMillan alum, said he noticed Kline quickly – and wholeheartedly – bought into the organization’s mission.

 

“He’s been doing a really good job fundraising and raising money ever since,” Hull said. “He’s into that kind of stuff; he’s really smart and he takes it really seriously. It’s for a great cause.

 

It didn’t take long for Kline’s community-service efforts to catch the eye of his new head coach.

 

“Every time we’re doing some type of community service activity, he’s all over it,” James Franklin said earlier this spring. “He’s involved in everything.”

 

The Lift for Life and Uplifting Athletes, Kline insists, is a full team-wide venture.

 

“Guys are really, really helpful, coming to events and things like that, doing everything they can to get involved,” he said. “We do a great job of making sure that everybody is involved and everybody really wants to be involved which is awesome. The guys who maybe have the important titles, it makes our jobs a lot easier because everybody wants to be involved and everybody wants to help.”

 

To pledge to the Lift For Life at Penn State, click here. To donate to the Uplifting Athletes organization, click here.

 

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May 26, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Trying to sort out Penn State’s linebacker situation

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“Linebacker U,” in some ways, has turned into “Linebacker Who?”

 

While Penn State navigated depth-sapping NCAA sanctions last season, a safety (Stephen Obeng-Agyapong) played linebacker more often than not as the thin Nittany Lions dealt with injuries to two of their projected starters. This spring, almost all of PSU’s practices featured just four scholarship linebackers.

 

Glenn Carson, a three-year starter at middle linebacker, graduated and signed with the Arizona Cardinals. To put Penn State’s lack of experience and depth at linebacker into perspective, Carson started 36 games during his career; the entirety of PSU’s 2014 linebacking corps enters the season with just 19 career starts.

 

The situation might not be as dire as that perhaps sounds – redshirt junior Ben Kline (shoulder and chest injuries) is hoping to be ready for the start of the season after sitting out most of spring practice, Mike Hull is poised for a star turn during his fifth-year senior season, and Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell each showed promise last fall while playing as freshmen.

 

Additionally, a pair of three-star recruits – Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda – join the team as freshmen for preseason camp. And another recruit, four-star Koa Farmer, will begin his career as a strong safety in a spot that theoretically could support the outside linebackers. Reeder, whose father played briefly for the Steelers, is generally considered the freshman linebacker most likely to contribute immediately.

 

After that, Gary Wooten is the lone scholarship linebacker who remains – albeit an intriguing one. Wooten had a peculiar recruitment in that he signed with Penn State in August 2012 – about 21 months after playing his final high school game in Miami. He redshirted his initial season and appeared in 10 of the final 11 games last season. Half of his tackles were in the season finale against Wisconsin.

 

Hull, unsolicited, told me that Wooten was turning heads during spring practice. Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo did likewise to PennLive.

 

“He’s a really strong, physical, big linebacker,” Hull said of the 6-2, 238-pound Wooten. “And he doesn’t waste too much movement; he just goes downhill and makes plays. He’s been around the ball a lot this spring, and I think he will just keep getting better and better.”

 

Of the 10 walk-ons listed on the roster at linebacker, Matt Baney, a junior from State College, appears to have scaled the depth chart the highest. Converted running back Von Walker — fleet enough he was returning some punts last season — is another walk-on linebacker worth noting.

 

Baney was visible during the Blue-White Game (he had an interception and a pass break-up).

 

“Matt Baney had a really good spring; he’s gotten a lot better from so far from whenever he first got on the team,” Hull said. “He filled in for Nyeem whenever he was missing some practices during the spring due to injury and he did a great job and I think he’ll help because we need speed in there.”

 

No slight to Baney, but Penn State hopes he doesn’t have to get significant snaps on defense this season – only because that would probably mean that multiple linebackers are injured. The Lions dealt with that last season, with Hull at less than 100 percent until the latter stages of the season, and Kline limited to two starts.

 

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has fallen in love with Hull as a player and leader. If he can stay healthy, seemingly everyone involved with the program expects a super year from Hull at middle linebacker. Kline – again, if he can completely recover from injury and stay healthy – projects as the top backup at both middle and weakside outside linebacker.

 

That leaves Wartman – who showed flashes last season but was inconsistent – and Bell, who made an abundance of splash plays in a limited sample size,  as sophomore starters. Bell was a true freshman in 2013; Wartman played his freshman season after redshirting in 2012. Of course, don’t count out Wooten.

 

“I don’t want to name anybody individually because everybody has just worked really hard this spring,” Kline said. “All these guys, from top to bottom.”

 

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May 5, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s Franklin, assistants to visit Pittsburgh on Thursday

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James Franklin’s roots in Pittsburgh trace to his childhood. Thursday, he’ll be making one of his first public appearances in the city since being hired as Penn State’s head coach in January.

 

Franklin will be at the Sheraton Station Square for the local stop on the Penn State Coaches Caravan tour. Franklin will join assistants (and Western PA natives) Terry Smith and Bob Shoop, along with women’s soccer head coach Erica Walsh and men’s soccer head coach Bob Warming for the Pittsburgh stop, the seventh of 17 by Franklin and other coaches over a 22-day span.

 

Earlier Thursday, Franklin & Co. will make their only other Western Pennsylvania stop, in Uniontown, at the Community Center Building’s main arena on the Penn State Fayette campus. You can register to attend either event (or any of the other eight across the state and region that haven’t sold out yet) here. Registration is $40 for members and $55 for non-members, and if space allows tickets will be available at the door for each for an additional $10.

 

The caravan stops outside of Pennsylvania (most every corner of the state is covered) are Washington D.C. and Baltimore on Wednesday and in New York City and northern New Jersey on May 15. The closest the caravan will be to Pittsburgh other than Thursday is Erie – a sold-out stop May 22. The caravan began this past Thursday in State College.

 

Like most everything involving Franklin, there was no shortage of pomp and spectacle associated with that initial caravan stop. Say what you want about Franklin, he is a skilled public speaker who is comfortable and personable in interacting with fans, alumni, students and public at large.

 

This is the third public appearance for Franklin in Pittsburgh since being named the Nittany Lions’ head coach in January. Within a week, he spoke briefly at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association’s Johnny Majors Night – and connected with an audience that, for obvious reasons, was largely pro-Pitt. Franklin also spoke at the Nike Coach of the Year Clinic in Green Tree in February.

 

Smith was a standout player for Gateway who was a receiver at Penn State and later coached Gateway. He was hired as cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator by Franklin. Shoop, who is from Oakmont, is Penn State’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach.

 

The reception at the Sheraton Station Square begins at 6 p.m. Thursday with the program to follow at 7 p.m. Franklin will be available to the media prior to the event.

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May 5, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Baldwin’s Jenkins expected to add to PSU’s recruiting success as Franklin’s first WPIAL recruit

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Over the weekend, Penn State landed yet another highly-regarded recruit. Come Tuesday, the Nittany Lions are expected to welcome their highest-rated Class of 2015 prospect yet.

 

After much anticipation, James Franklin & Co. appear poised to make their first big recruiting splash into Pittsburgh.

 

Saturday, it was Potomac, Maryland, defensive lineman Jonathan Holland who became Penn State’s 13th 2015 verbal commitment. Tuesday, Baldwin High School offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins will make a verbal commitment to a college public via KDKA television. It is widely expected Jenkins will do so to Penn State.

 

Sportscaster Bob Pompeani will interview the 6-foot-8, 305-pound Jenkins at the high school mid-afternoon Tuesday, Highlanders coach Pete Wagner said. The private announcement – no school assembly, no pep rally, I’ve been told – will be taped and aired at 6:40 p.m. on the evening news. (The announcement will be made available via the KDKA website, per longtime KDKA producer Mike Vukovcan).

 

Jenkins isn’t making any official (well, as “official” as a nonbinding verbal commitment can be, anyway) public announcements until then. And his choice “officially” is between Penn State and Ohio State. However, it would be an absolute shock if he did not choose PSU. Barring something incredibly unforeseen over the final 24 hours, it’s expected Jenkins will become the Nittany Lions’ highest-rated of an already highly-rated 2015 incoming class (per ESPN).

 

Wagner reiterated again Monday – as he has before – that Penn State is a “clear-cut No. 1” for Jenkins, who is the No. 1 rated 2015 prospect in Pennsylvania and No. 6 offensive tackle in the country according to Rivals.com. ESPN rates Jenkins as the overall No. 65 prospect – regardless of position – nationally. For all of Franklin’s early recruiting successes – and they are many, judging by the No. 2 national class ranking Penn State holds behind Alabama in the Rivals, Scout and 247 rankings – Jenkins would be considered the top-ranked recruit of them all.

 

Jenkins repeatedly has posted pro-Penn State tweets to his Twitter account. Many, many of the major analysts who do this for a living have been saying for some time now that Jenkins has been all but a lock to pick Penn State. Jenkins wants to make a public announcement, so we’ll respect his wishes.

 

In addition to Ohio State, Rivals reports that other schools that have offered Jenkins a scholarship include Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Arizona, West Virginia and, yes, Pitt.

 

Jenkins traveled to Penn State on Monday with his father, stepmother, grandmother and youngest sister (in a text message, he said he “had a great time” in State College). Jenkins chose to make his announcement the day after this highly-anticipated family visit to Penn State.

 

“He just wanted to do a campus tour,” Wagner said. “It was an opportunity for everyone to see everything together, in terms of the academic offerings, the campus and hearing from some of the coaches.”

 

One of Franklin’s first stops upon accepting the PSU job in January was Pittsburgh – and visiting Baldwin to see Jenkins was a high priority on that visit. Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith (the former Gateway High School coach who also is the defensive recruiting coordinator at Penn State and whose state recruiting area responsibility includes Baldwin) has been active in recruiting Jenkins. The two have formed a good relationship. Offensive line coach Herb Hand and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop (an Oakmont native) also have visited Baldwin over the past month.

 

Jenkins has visited Penn State at least five times, including for the Blue-White Game last month.

 

“It’s a pretty natural feel,” Wagner said of Jenkins’ relationship with the coaching staff.

 

Much has been made of Franklin’s oft-repeated proclamation to “dominate the state” in recruiting. So far, he and his staff have done that – nabbing each of the four highest-rated prospects from Pennsylvania who have committed to far. Not only would Jenkins give them the No. 1 overall prospect in PA – it would provide the first WPIAL recruit of Franklin’s tenure.

 

Jenkins and Central Valley defensive back Jordan Whitehead are the only known WPIAL 2015 prospects whom have scholarship offers from Penn State. Whitehead has said he plans on taking his time before making a decision.

 

 

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April 13, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Franklin earns win-win in his first Penn State spring game

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When I sat down with James Franklin four days before spring practice began in early March, he told me he was “not out to win spring ball.”

 

At his first spring game, though, Franklin won big.

 

Twice.

 

Before Saturday’s Blue-White game even kicked off, Penn State took over the unanimous lead in the national Class of 2015 recruiting class rankings when Maryland defensive end Adam McLean took to Twitter announce a verbal commitment to Penn State.

 

McLean, 6 feet 1, 282 pounds, is rated as a four-star prospect by all three major recruiting services. According to Rivals, he had more than two dozen scholarship offers, notably from high-profile schools such as Alabama, Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Florida State. Yes, Pitt had offered him a scholarship, too – and, yes, it makes it a clean sweep of nine 2015 prospects now that had offers from both Pitt and Penn State who chose PSU.

 

McLean’s commitment buoyed Penn State to No. 1 in all three of the major recruiting sites’ national rankings: Scout, Rivals and 247. Yes, that’s ahead of Alabama in all three. And PSU is the only school with 12 commitments so far.

 

(As an aside, the news could be getting even better for Franklin & Co.: Baldwin offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins was one of 40 signees/prospects to be on hand at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, and Jenkins – already with Penn State No. 1 on his list – dropped some strong hints he might be close to making it official – or at least as “official” as a non-binding verbal commitment can be).

 

(Another tangent for my usual recruiting disclaimer: I have never seen any of Penn State’s commitments play in person – and I’m betting neither have anyone reading this. Also, again, all these verbal commitments are just only that – verbal – and the smart money is that one way or another that somehow, some way, the ’15 PSU class changes somehow prior to signing day next February. Both those things said, the objective and subjective ratings by the major recruiting services – outlets that do these things for a living – are all we have to go on, so we will trust them, at least as a relative basis of comparison. And the vast majority of these verbal commitments – if not all – will stay PSU loyalists all the way through to February).

 

Back to Franklin’s second “win.” The Blue-White Game drew an announced estimated 72,000. I have not the time nor energy to verify this with all other 120-plus schools who held a spring game, but it has been reported by multiple outlets that Penn State, so far, has had the largest attendance for a spring game in 2014.

 

The relative impact of recruiting among the list of things that comprise a successful program can be debated. It’s somewhere between “extremely important” and “important – but only one piece of a player-development puzzle that is only one piece of the overall program health puzzle.” We all can agree that none of these recruits has won Penn State a game yet.

 

That said, Franklin’s selling seemingly whatever recruits he wants on the PSU program. And he also sold 72,000 Penn State fans, students and alumni on taking in a intrasquad scrimmage.

 

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April 11, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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What I’m watching for at the Blue-White Game

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I’ve compiled a list of questions, in no particular order, of what I’m keeping a keen (well, as keen as I have the ability to) eye on to get answers to at Penn State’s Blue-White Game on Saturday (not necessarily in order of relevance). Feel free to watch for the same things. Suggest something I might be missing via email or comment below. Or ignore me altogether. Most do.

 

Enjoy the game. Looks like a beautiful day is on tap in bucolic* Happy Valley.

 

(*-word stolen from 93.7 The Fan’s Chris Mueller)

 

 

 

 

Who starts on the offensive line?

This is the most cut-and-dried issue we’ll see addressed. We know Donovan Smith is the left tackle. After that, what do we know? There are inexperience and injury concerns abound.

 

Does Michael O’Connor have any “Hack” in him?

It might be telling (or it might not be) that true freshman January enrollee O’Connor is on the team with the starters (“Blue”). Is that a sign that the plan is for him to be the backup come fall? He’s unquestionably the most talented of the three quarterbacks behind Christian Hackenberg (D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple were true freshman walk-ons last season). But, the thought goes, O’Connor would earn an extra year to start if he redshirted. My guess (and it’s only a guess): Crook and Whipple, to use a baseball analogy, are the “short relief men” used late in blowouts or if Hackenberg is dinged up for a play or two. If Hackenberg suffers serious injury, though, O’Connor is the “long man” to replace him as the starter the remainder of the season. We’ll get our first chance to see him in live action Saturday.

 

Who’ll be the second and third cornerbacks behind Jordan Lucas?

Trevor Williams and Jordan Smith are on the “Blue” roster, indicating they are the favorites to be so come fall. Williams started the first half of last season. Da’Quan Davis, as I’ve opined many times, is an intriguing candidate because he played extensively as a true freshman in 2012 and showed decent promise. Then last season, under the same coaching staff and with a dearth of bodies at the position, he barely saw the field on defense. Davis is athletic – but he is undersized, and this staff has stressed it prefers bigger defensive backs.

 

What is James Franklin’s sideline demeanor like?

This is Franklin’s first public appearance in a football setting at Beaver Stadium. A smart man savvy in selling himself and the program he represents, Franklin knows this. He has made no secret of his desire to put on a show for the fans – fans he hopes come in droves (in part, many will just to see him). I could envision Franklin playing to the crowd, almost pro wrestling-style. Or, perhaps he will take a more business-like, let’s-get-to-work approach. In the end, this is a minor detail that doesn’t really matter. But we’re all still learning the intricacies of the engaging James Franklin peresona.

 

Is Gary Wooten a breakout candidate?

Canon-McMillan’s Mike Hull strikes me as a young man who is calculated when he speaks. He isn’t cavalier with quotes in an interview setting. And I think he’s even more aware of what he is saying (and when) this season, when he will be a fifth-year senior captain and undisputed team leader. Both times Hull has been available to the media, Hull has pointed out the strong spring that Wooten is having. Hull is a definite starter, of course, at middle linebacker. Who will flank him (and be Hull’s primary backup) is up for debate. It most likely is some combination of Ben Kline, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Wooten.

 

Is DeAndre Thompkins a star in the making?

A freshman early enrollee, it’s obvious Thompkins has been turning heads through 14 spring practices.  A 5-11, 171-pound North Carolina native, Thompkins might have instantly become Penn State’s fastest receiver. He also, arguably, became the Nittany Lions’ top return man right away. We’ll see how he is doing at picking up some of the finer points of the college game (route-running, blocking, etc.) to be trusted to be on the field regularly immediately as a freshman, but there seems little questioning that Thompkins has the type skill set that will raise fans’ eyebrows in a spring game-type setting.

 

Who’ll play on special teams?

Franklin has said he won’t shy away from playing his starters on special teams. This is a stark departure from the Bill O’Brien philosophy. O’Brien relied on a bevy of freshman and walk-ons (including several freshman walk-ons) for his special teams. The result was a below-average unit that multiple Penn State players have called a weak point on the 2013 team. That said, you can’t blame O’Brien – if a starter got hurt on a meaningless extra-point attempt, for example, the results would have been devastating to a thin roster. It’s likely even Franklin will back off his “the best guys will play on special teams” mantra during a glorified intrasquad scrimmage, so who knows if we’ll get answers Saturday? But I certainly will be looking to see who is on the kick return and coverage and punt return and coverage teams, in particular. The most visible of both – and the one we’re most likely to get answers on – come at the actual returners. Thompkins, for instance, is expected to handle some of those duties.

 

Does the defensive line have the quantity and quality of players that PSU hopes/believes it does?

On a team razor-thin in no shortage of areas, Franklin this week pointed to the defensive line (along with running back) as positions of depth. Telling that these comments were made after the Lions moved two defensive tackles to the offensive line! Imagine how deep the defensive line corps could have been? Signs are pointing to a seasoned and largely-proven starting unit of Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan at the ends and Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel at the tackles. But redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels has the pedigree to make an impact at end. Also, end Brad Bars is back from injury, and newcomer tackles Tarow Barney (a junior college transfer) and Antoine White (a freshman) are worth getting your first peek at. Zettel packed on 20 pounds to move from end.

 

What about the local guys?

I’ll always have a soft spot for the WPIAL and City League players. As a bonus: I’ve found the ones on this team that I’ve interacted with to be really good guys. So I’ll keep an eye out for any of them on the field. We know about Hull and tight end Jesse James (South Allegheny HS), both of whom we’ll see playing on Sundays in the future. Unfortunately, guard Miles Diffenbach (Fox Chapel) has a knee injury so his status is in limbo. Shaler’s Jesse Della Valle earned increasing playing time on defense as last season went on, and he was a primary punt returner. Will he hold onto his spots on both depth charts? Can Whipple, who played at Pine-Richland, beat out Crook? Franklin went out of his way to praise Blackhawk grad Cole Chiappialle when talking about the running backs Thursday. That’s a crowded position, but maybe Chiappialle is more prominent on several special teams, too? Chiappialle and Langley grad Tyrone Smith, a defensive tackle, are on the “Blue” roster with the starters. Belle Vernon cornerback Adam Cole, North Allegheny receiver Gregg Garrity and Franklin Regional linebacker Carter Henderson also are worth tracking. Garrity was used in the return game at times last season.

 

 

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March 30, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Giving Penn State’s remarkable recruiting efforts some well-deserved recognition

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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.

 

 

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