It has been almost 19 months since Penn State picked up its first verbal commitment of the 2016 recruiting class. Said commitment came in the form of Miles Sanders in July of 2014. Just a little more than a week later, Shane Simmons joined him in committing to the Nittany Lions. In February of 2016, after going through over two months of de-commitments, and missing out on virtually every top target left on the board, it can be hard to forget how things started for James Franklin, and this pivotal group of players.
Heck, if you go back to the summer, the Lions' class sat comfortably in the top-10 in the nation, and were thought to be in great shape with players like Tre Nixon, Jordan Fuller, Brendan Ferns, and Damar Hamlin among others. Things were looking so good, that a very talented Pennsylvania native, Khaleke Hudson, seemed to be left without a spot.
Now that the class of 2016 has signed on the dotted line, Nixon is in Oxford, Fuller in Columbus, Ferns in Morgantown, and Hamlin in Pittsburgh. Players like Lavert Hill, Andrew Pryts and Karamo Dioubate opted to head elsewhere (Hill to Michigan, Pryts to Stanford, Dioubate to Temple). That doesn't even mention the de-commitments of Aaron Mathews, Michael Dwumfour and Quinn Nordin.
In this world where it can seem that only what happened last matters, it is tough not to look at the last two months of time and wonder how things went so poorly. It is also very easy to forget that the Lions did ink eight blue chip players (four or five star rankings). On top of that, Penn State brought in the top punter in the country based on some services, as well as one of the country's top kickers, positions that seldom earn anything more than a three-star ranking at best.
The Lions signed two of the top players in Pennsylvania, as well as the top player in Maryland, New York and Massachusetts. In many cases, they landed their top targets at positions. With so much bad news of late, it has been easy to forget all those great things that happened before that.
At the same time, it does not take a genius to look at missing out on every major target left heading into the fall, and losing several others already in the fold when the 2015 season kicked off, and see some red flags. The 7-6 record, and four game losing streak to end the season gave plenty of ammunition to opposing coaches looking to poach members of a talented class. Couple that with the departure of two assistant coaches, and several transfers (no matter how obvious the latter were), and there was plenty of fuel for those negative recruiting fires.
I wrote after the loss to Georgia that the heavy lifting begins now for James Franklin, and this staff. With only a month before signing day, and limited contact allowed due to a dead period, there was precious little time to alleviate the concerns that were being raised by those players in the fold, or still considering the Nittany Lions. The staff did great work to keep Sanders and Daniel Joseph, among others, in the class, but missed with others.
The first test will be heading into this spring with the 2017 class. In his two seasons at Penn State, Coach Franklin has made it a habit to get his recruiting classes off to a fast start. With practically no momentum, and those negative PSU stories floating around, it will be fascinating to see how the next few months play out.
The second, and much more crucial test, begins September 3rd in Beaver Stadium, when Franklin's third season kicks off versus Kent State. The only way to put that talk about his future at Penn State, and the direction of the program to rest, is to show it on the field. In short, win football games. If the 2016 version of the Nittany Lions takes another step forward, progress becomes a much easier sell for Franklin and his staff, even with the inevitability of transfers, and coaches names coming up at other schools.
At the end of the day, this is still a very good class, ranked 19th in the nation by the 247Sports Composite. That is good for third in the Big 10 (and Big 10 East). 40% of the class is made up of blue chip recruits, and 50% if you throw in the top end punter and kicker joining the program. Is it good enough to play with Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State? Maybe not on paper, but the talent level is getting better. Win another game or two this fall, and it gets better even faster.