When Bill O'Brien stepped into his new office in the Lasch Building back in 2012, his job was supposed to be damage control. He was simply supposed to do everything in his power to tread water with a roster that was going to be decimated by transfers. In recruiting, it was expected that O'Brien would never draw interest from anything resembling a big time recruit for years.
Instead, the man whose most notable accomplishment to that point was yelling at Tom Brady on national television ended up doing far more than simply tread water.
Despite all of the adversity that O'Brien faced, he led the 2012 Penn State football team to one of the most miraculous seasons in school history. You know that story well. The other half of the equation was what he did for Penn State in recruiting. Using his knowledge of how to coach quarterbacks and what it took to get to the NFL, O'Brien was able to land a commitment from the nation's top pro-style quarterback, Christian Hackenberg. The 2013 Penn State class was filled out with the nation's No. 2 tight end in Adam Breneman, a top-ten defensive end in Garrett Sickels and several other players who have gone on to make an impact in Happy Valley. The 2014 class would bring much of the same, holding commitments from numerous four-star players even though O'Brien eventually left State College for the Houston Texans.
O'Brien will go down in Penn State history for many reasons, but the job he was able to do in recruiting in 2013 may be the most impactful part of his time in Happy Valley. His ability to draw in one of the nation's top players in Hackenberg showed the entire country that Penn State wasn't going anywhere. In fact, it showed the country that Penn State was about to reestablish itself among the blue chip recruiters in a big way.
James Franklin was introduced as the new head coach of Penn State football on Jan. 20, 2014. He came to State College armed with most of his coaching staff from Vanderbilt, his loving family and his coaching philosophies. He also came with a great reputation for -- and a great love of -- recruiting. Although he and his staff were able to add some of their own flair to the tail end of the 2014 recruiting class, those kids' commitments were mostly O'Brien's doing. This meant that the 2015 cycle would be the first year that Franklin would truly get his chance to show what he could do with his own recruiting prowess and the power of the Pennsylvania State University behind him.
After the celebration that was 2014 National Signing Day, Franklin didn't waste any time getting to work on his first, true recruiting class at Penn State. In fact, by the staff's own standards, they were already behind where they wanted to be -- Franklin operates under the belief that it takes one and one-half to two years to truly build a class. So the staff didn't rest on their laurels of their 2014 success, rather, they began putting the finishing touches on the plans for the big 2015 and 2016 prospect weekend that was to be held a mere week and a half later.
There were numerous visitors that weekend in State College who would eventually choose to commit to Penn State, but three in particular felt it necessary to pledge their allegiance nearly a year before their National Signing Day. The unheralded safety Jarvis Miller, the human bulldozer Ryan Bates, and the über-versatile Kamonte Carter all felt comfortable enough with the Penn State atmosphere to make their college decisions that weekend. It was a powerful way to announce to the country that Penn State recruiting was back, despite the scholarship sanctions that were still going to limit their efforts to an extent.
One of other players who took in the Penn State experience that weekend was Whitehall (PA) running back Saquon Barkley. At the time, Barkley was still a somewhat under-the-radar prospect. Further complicating things was that he was already committed to become a Scarlet Knight and play his college football in New Jersey. Barkley had received his Nittany Lion offer back in October, but hadn't yet chosen to take another trip to State College. When Franklin took over the role of head coach, one of his first points of order was to make plans to get Barkley on campus. Barkley decided that it was in his best interest to do so, and one visit later, he found himself calling Kyle Flood to let him know that he would be attending school in Happy Valley. Although Barkley was still a three-star player at this point, Franklin's ability to flip him to Penn State showed fans everywhere that the new guy's "Dominate the State" tagline was no joke.
Linebacker Jake Cooper and defensive end Ryan Buchholz were the next two to hop on the James Franklin express, although neither was much of a surprise. Cooper in particular had made it no secret he was coveting a Penn State offer for the entirety of his recruitment. Buchholz felt similar, and both decided to make things official while visiting the campus. These commitments yielded Black Shoe Diaries the first inside look into what a commitment looks like in a Franklin-led office, courtesy of Cooper (from a February interview with BSD):
Yeah, Coach Franklin ran out of his office down the hallway screaming that I committed, and everybody came up. Coach Spencer gave me a chest bump, a lot of people gave me hugs. It was great.
This is what recruiting looks like in today's Penn State: pure energy and enthusiasm. Not only does the staff use "attack" as a philosophy on the football field, but in the recruiting world as well. One of the first things Franklin mentioned in his introductory press conference was that they were going to be aggressive recruiters. That's the kind of effort that it takes to recruit in the Big Ten, when there is only so much top-flight talent to go around in the region. Recruiting against the likes of college football legend and master recruiter Urban Meyer demands a dedicated and aggressive approach to grabbing top talent whenever you can.
Despite the massive success that the month of February had already brought, Franklin wasn't done just yet. An often-overlooked aspect of recruiting is the relationship building between college coach and high school coach. Joe Paterno had fantastic relationships with coaches all over the northeast, but one that had faltered in recent years was that with Pennsylvania powerhouse Bishop McDevitt. At the time, Bishop McDevitt running back Andre Robinson was one of the top three recruits in the state of Pennsylvania. When Franklin gained his commitment on Feb. 27, it not only gave Penn State yet another outstanding running back prospect, but it gave Franklin a perfect introduction to the McDevitt coaches who he will likely speak to many times in the future. Building strong relationships is another Franklin-ism, and one that will serve him very well during his time in State College.
The next two commits would fall in line in middle/late March in the form of wide receiver standouts Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk. Johnson, who held an Alabama offer, told me that the family atmosphere was what drove him to the Nittany Lions. He told me that, "right when I stepped on the campus, I felt like I was at home. If I went away from my real home, I would still be at my home at Penn State."
The idea of Penn State being a family and not just a football team is not one that started under Franklin (and is not specific just to Penn State). However, it's something that he and the staff have worked hard to cultivate and keep alive after his predecessors did so much to build said family (Paterno) and keep it together (O'Brien). Johnson was hardly the first recruit to notice this, but his is just another in a long line of stories about players coming to Penn State to be a part of something more than just a football team. Polk felt the love as well, and simultaneously provided Franklin with another speedy slot weapon to pair with 2014 commit De'Andre Thompkins. The Virginia native also helped Franklin further his reach into his old DMV stomping grounds.
To close out the month of March, Penn State pulled off two of what still might be the most surprising commitments of the 2015 class, even if one didn't stick. Offensive guard Steven Gonzalez and linebacker Josh Barajas were both pegged for other schools. It was decided. Done. Yet Gonzalez, who according to the 247Sports' Crystal Ball was a 100 percent lock for the Buckeyes, told me that being at Penn State just "feels right in my heart" and that he felt at home. This was the first blow Franklin struck against Meyer's Buckeyes and one that sent some waves through the Big Ten.
The commitment from Barajas was similarly shocking. The Andrean High School linebacker who lives a mere hour and a half from South Bend and was considered a lock to head to Notre Dame. The linebacker echoed Gonzalez's statements about the comfort factor of State College, and how it was something he never truly felt anywhere else. To be able to pull a stud linebacker out of Brian Kelly's own backyard and bring him to Happy Valley was a major coup for Franklin.
Next up for the Lions was the annual spring game, aka the Blue/White game. It would be the first glimpse for fans to see what the 2014 team's offense was going to loosely look like, along with seeing some of their favorite backups and freshmen get some playing time in Beaver Stadium. For years, Blue/White weekend has been one of the premiere weekends to make a pilgrimage back to Happy Valley to watch free football and catch up with old friends. For the coaching staff, it's all business.
The Blue/White game has always been a big draw for recruits, as it's one of the best chances to see Penn State playing in warm weather outside of a bowl game (despite the usual rain shower). The commit from that weekend, Adam McLean, would end up becoming one of the more polarizing figures in recent memory for Penn State recruiting, but at the time, he was a huge pickup. McLean was the first major step in rebuilding the depth on the defensive line that had allowed it to consistently be one of the country's best over the years. And of course, it was yet another step into the DMV for Franklin.
The very early part of May brought the next wave of commits, starting off with one who received a Florida State offer just before committing, which threw things into a little bit of doubt. Tight end/defensive end Jonathan Holland's offer sheet exploded in April, as he found himself with opportunities to play for Georgia, Nebraska, Clemson and the aforementioned Seminoles. Despite all of those high profile offers and the chance to play football in the warmth of the south, Franklin was still able to convince Holland to join the Lions and secured himself a quality player with the ability to play on either side of the ball in college.
"We are going to dominate the state. That is the first thing that we're going to do," was the cherry on top of what was overall an intoxicating introductory press conference. Franklin answered every question not only with the correct answer, but he did so with passion and purpose. When the questions finally shifted into his recruiting philosophy, he provided Penn State internet its new favorite hashtag/mindset/catchphrase: Dominate the State. So simple, yet so elegant and so meaningful. After gaining commitments from exactly one top-ten player in the state every year from 2011 to 2014, Penn State needed a new approach. Franklin made sure that everyone watching his press conference knew that he was going to take back Pennsylvania. To truly do that though, he needed to secure a commitment from the state's best.
Offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins was finally ready to make a decision. He had finally narrowed things down. Despite playing in and living in Pittsburgh, he was going to make his decision between Ohio State and Penn State. Upon his announcement through his local radio station that he would be continuing his education in Happy Valley, it became clear that not only was James Franklin holding his own and then some against Urban Meyer, but he was following through on his promise. With a commitment from Jenkins, Penn State held verbal pledges from six of the top players in the state before the summer even began.
Also committing on that day was highly touted dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush. The New Jersey native from private school power house St. Peter's Prep represented another dominating step into the New Jersey talent pool. Wimbush would go on to have one of the greatest high school seasons in state history, providing Penn State fans a look at the future of their offense every time he played on national television.
Soon after, another DMV resident chose the Nittany Lions. Safety Ayron Monroe -- brother of Maryland Terrapin Andre Monroe -- was the first major victory for Franklin over Randy Edsall and the Terps, his former school where he was anointed the coach in waiting. Although it isn't uncommon to see little brothers of college players go to different schools from their siblings to forge their own paths, it still spoke volumes that Franklin and co. were able to persuade the DC native to make his way up to Penn State.
The end of May wouldn't be a happy time for Penn State fans, and would also be the first time Franklin showed that he wasn't perfect. Upon reconsideration of his choice, Barajas realized that Notre Dame was the place for him after all, and Penn State was left with just Jake Cooper to carry on the Linebacker U legacy. Luckily for Penn State, there was another option waiting in the wings.
Manny Bowen was one of the hottest recruits on the east coast from March on. After earning his Nittany Lion offer in late March (an offer he had long coveted), he received scholarship offers from Miami, Virginia, Louisville, Oregon, South Carolina and Florida. He also held offers from defensive juggernauts Alabama, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Suffice to say, Bowen could have gone anywhere he wanted. Franklin once again proved himself to be up to the challenge of recruiting against the Nick Sabans of the world and landed Bowen's commitment in late June.
The next two months would produce one more recruit each, but both big enough to warrant waiting for the news to drop. In July, longtime target Irvin Charles pulled the trigger for the Nittany Lions. Charles had been a Penn State priority at wide receiver for some time, but had to back off in his recruitment for a while due to personal reasons. It would have been very easy for Penn State to shift its focus elsewhere and leave Charles behind, especially because it had already sealed two wide receiver commitments in this class. Instead, they stuck to their guns. They knew that they wanted Charles as part of the class, and they didn't back off. When he finally did commit, it was thanks to a ton of hard and patient work by the staff.
Such was the case with the next commitment, cornerback John Reid. At the time, Reid was the player jockeying with Jenkins for the top spot on the list of Pennsylvania prospects. He was also still fresh off of earning the cornerback MVP of the New Jersey Nike National Football Training Camp earlier in the spring over five-star Alabama commit and former Penn State target Minkah Fitzpatrick. Reid's quiet recruitment came to an end when he chose the Nittany Lions over offers from pretty much everywhere (again, including Alabama), pushing Penn State into an even more dominant position in Pennsylvania.
The beginning of September would not only bring the end of the scholarship restrictions for Penn State (along with an end to the bowl ban), but it would bring another commit as well. With the added flexibility of being able to once again have a roster of 85 guys, Franklin wasted no time passing out an offer to athlete Daiquan Kelly, teammate of Gonzalez. Kelly was a guy who was always high on Penn State's list, but was going to be someone who Penn State would have to wait until the end of the 2015 recruitment period, due to the uncertainty surrounding how many scholarships it had to give. Once he received that offer, it didn't take long for him to flip from his Syracuse commitment.
The next month or so would be trying times for Nittany Lion fans and coaches. First, the other top cornerback in Pennsylvania, Jordan Whitehead, chose to commit to his hometown Panthers over Penn State and West Virginia. Then, Wimbush chose to take his talents to South Bend after gaining a previously non-existent offer from the Irish. Penn State would bounce back, stealing another dual-threat quarterback in Tommy Stevens from Indiana. Penn State only had one shot to make a good impression on Stevens, who didn't initially want to visit at all due to his commitment to Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers. Luckily, thanks to one of the most exhilarating crowds of the year for the Ohio State whiteout game and some solid recruiting during the game by Jenkins, Stevens was blown away by Happy Valley. His commitment became public a few weeks later.
Unfortunately, it would be more rough seas ahead for Penn State. A week after Stevens committed, McLean decided to de-commit. He would later end up committing to Maryland, his in-state school. The day after, Matthew Burrell made his college choice. The four-star offensive tackle had things down to Penn State, Ohio State and LSU. Meyer flexed his recruiting muscles, and Burrell was on his way to joining the soon-to-be national champs. In a little over one month's time, Penn State had lost out on its top remaining offensive line and cornerback targets and saw its blue chip quarterback and defensive tackle go elsewhere. It was nearly enough to send Penn State fans off the ledge.
Franklin didn't let the bad feelings last long, though. Less than two weeks after Burrell chose Ohio State, Penn State picked up a commitment from one of the Michigan defectors. Cornerback Garrett Taylor was Franklin's answer to losing Jordan Whitehead, and was a fantastic answer at that. Aside from being one of the more highly ranked corners in the country and pairing with Reid to form one of the fiercest DB combos in the 2015 class, Taylor's commitment reestablished the belief that anything is possible after a kid gets on Penn State's campus. Despite visiting LSU and Ohio State earlier in the month of November, Taylor felt comfortable enough with Penn State during his visit for the Michigan State game to commit before leaving campus.
Things were getting down to the wire for the 2015 class with the holiday season quickly approaching. The early enrollment period approached rapidly as well, meaning the chance to sign any Junior College commits in time to enroll early was quickly evaporating. Penn State had a need at offensive tackle. Rumors of Donovan Smith leaving early for the NFL Draft were swirling and the depth of the position was being called into question. So what did Franklin do? He went out and flipped the No. 1 JuCo offensive tackle, Paris Palmer, from South Carolina thanks to a tireless effort that left Steve Spurrier's staff speechless. Suddenly, the arrow for Penn State's 2015 class was shooting straight up once more.
The final dead period came and went following the turn of the calendar to 2015, and Penn State had one last shot to impress its final group of targets. Defensive end Shareef Miller, defensive tackle Robert Windsor, tight end Nick Bowers and safety Johnny Petrishen all visited Happy Valley at the end of January. All four had very legitimate reasons to want to play football elsewhere. All four decided to commit to Penn State anyway. Miller and Windsor decided to make the call the day of, while Bowers and Petrishen took a few extra days to think over their choice between Penn State and Pittsburgh. Alongside those two in choosing Lions over Panthers, was James Franklin's final performance of the 2015 cycle. Kevin Givens, a linebacker/defensive end who had committed to Pitt over a year ago, was swayed into joining Sean Spencer's Wild Dogs, and changed his future residence from Pittsburgh to State College. It was the final step in Franklin's arrival into the hall of college football's recruiting elite.
After all the festivities of National Signing Day have finished, Penn State will have signed one of the nation's top-15 classes. Penn State was supposed to be broken. Penn State was supposed to be irrelevant. Penn State was supposed to disappear. Thanks to Bill O'Brien, Penn State persevered and fought back. Thanks to James Franklin, Penn State is rising back up, and it will come back stronger than ever.
Welcome to a new era in Penn State recruiting.