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Analyzing 10 Years of Penn State Recruiting

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How has Penn State fared on the recruiting trail over the last decade?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

As you likely know, Penn State currently has a recruiting class that is in the top five nationally. Less than 2 weeks ago, the Lions added their latest recruit, 4-star defensive end Dorian Hardy, the #161 player in the country according to the 247 Composite. This started a discussion among the masthead here at Black Shoe Diaries, in that the response to getting a blue chip defensive end seemed a bit diminished, relative to the caliber player Hardy is.

Now, it’s certainly possible that the addition of Dorian was overshadowed by the loss of 5-star quarterback Justin Fields less than a week prior. But there was some discussion among the staff that there was a time when Hardy would have been the crown jewel of the recruiting class, rather than “just another 4-star player.” So I decided to take a look back through a decade of Penn State recruiting to see just how well - or poorly - Dear Old State has recruited, and to see just exactly where Hardy would have fit in.

The Late Paterno Era (2009 - 2011)

There are many Penn State fans out there that believe Penn State recruiting was poor in the late stages of Joe Paterno’s tenure. If you were to ask them, the Lions simply settled for whichever players opted to make a trip up to campus, since JoePa himself had foregone visiting players entirely. The statistics don’t necessarily bear that out.

Some interesting things jumped out at me as I began to compile data from the 2009, 2010, and 2011 recruiting classes. First and foremost, Penn State was recruiting well - over the last 3 years that Paterno coached at PSU, the Lions averaged a top 20 class nationally. Many would argue that Penn State should have been averaging top 15 or top 10 classes, but bear in mind the roller coaster the Lions had been through since 2000: the Dark Years, a return to prominence in 2005 - including a Rose Bowl berth in 2009, and the announcement of the Grand Jury presentment in 2011. Averaging a top 20 class with the drama going on around the program was pretty impressive for the elderly coach and his staff.

If there was one thing that I would knock for Paterno’s classes, it’s that they averaged just eight blue-chippers (4- and 5-star players) per class, good for a 34% blue chip ratio. I am a massive proponent of recruiting, and firmly believe that the better you recruit, the better your results on the field, regardless of coaching acumen. Which is why I value the blue chip ratio so highly - essentially, if you recruit more 5- and 4-star players than not over a 4-year period, you will be one of the favorites to win the national championship. A 34% ratio was never going to get Penn State to national championship levels, and unfortunately, off-the-field issues would put an even bigger damper on national aspirations starting in 2012.

The Sanction Era (2012 - 2014)

As you all know by now, late in the 2011 season, the Grand Jury released its presentment about the actions of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, and of the ensuing firestorm that engulfed the University. Administrators and coaches were fired, students rioted, and the media broadcast every gory detail. In the midst of this tempest, Bill O’Brien stepped forward to become the next Penn State head football coach, and attempted to steer the program through the worst scandal in sports history. The recruiting results show just how difficult a sell the football team was at the time.

In 2012, 2013, and 2014, recruiting took a major blow. The average class dropped 15 spots nationally, and two spots in the Big Ten. The nadir was the 2012 class, most impacted by the sanctions. That class came in at #47 in the country, 8th in the conference, and featured just two blue chip players, a 10% ratio. Over the 3-year period most heavily impacted by the sanctions, Penn State’s blue chip ratio dipped all the way to 17%. Still, when many pundits were claiming that Penn State would never be competitive again, O’Brien never did worse than a top 50 class, providing a glimmer of hope that the football team might just survive.

Late in 2013 it was announced that Bill O’Brien would be leaving Penn State for the Houston Texans, and early in 2014 James Franklin was brought on as the next head coach. The Pennsylvania kid with a Penn State heart was known for being an exciting and charismatic coach, while particularly excelling as a recruiter. He proved that off the bat by pulling in the #24 class in the country, and the first class in the previous 6 years not to feature any 2-star players. Under Franklin, recruiting would only improve.

The Franklin Era (2015 - Present)

Perhaps one of the things that I most enjoy about James Franklin is that he has been an excellent cheerleader for the Penn State faithful. He came in on day one and talked about dominating the state in recruiting, and that areas around Pennsylvania belonged to Penn State. I understand that fans of other schools in the area that don’t like Franklin hold that belief at least in part because of this, but at a time when the PSU fan base was fractured, Coach Franklin was a unifying, positive force. His energy and enthusiasm have certainly resonated with the high school recruits since he’s been here, as witnessed in his first three full classes.

The Nittany Lions have experienced a recruiting renaissance under Franklin, vaulting into the top 20 regularly since his arrival. They’ve also climbed back near the #2 spot in the conference, and the average player rating has vastly improved. Of the 66 players brought in from the three full recruiting classes Franklin has brought in - 2015, 2016, and 2017 - just one 2-star player has been signed. Of particular note, the blue chip ratio is up to 48%, nearing the mythical mark needed to contend for national championships. However, the above table doesn’t include the current class of 2018, and just how exciting it is.

Consider this: with just 13 players, the 2018 class is already better than the average class from both the Paterno and sanction eras. This class is on track to be the best class from the last decade, if not ever. The blue chip ratio is at national championship levels, and that is more important than just this year’s class - if the 2018 class stays where it is from a blue chip ratio perspective, that would put the 2015-2018 4-year average right at 50%. Aside from the star power of this specific class, the long-term ramifications are enormous.

So What about Dorian Hardy?

Let’s not forget Dorian Hardy, the player who started this whole discussion. In the past 10 years, was there ever a time when the 4-star player, #161 in the country, would have been the #1 player in the class? The short answer is no; the long answer is no, but he would have gotten really close a couple times.

Both prior to and after the sanctions, Mr. Hardy would have averaged fifth in his class, as some of the bigger names like Anthony Zettel, Miles Dieffenbach, and Gerald Hodges would have finished ahead of him under Paterno, and Ricky Slade, CJ Thorpe, Miles Sanders, and Saquon Barkley would be above him under Franklin. During the sanctions, Dorian would have been the #2 player in both 2012 and 2014, and the #3 player in 2013. While he may never have been the #1 player overall, the fact that he’s buried in the middle of the current class shows just how far we’ve come since 2012.

It’s also a reason his commitment may not have been as heralded as others in years past. At one point this class was #1 in the country, and included commitments from both Micah Parsons and Justin Fields, two of the top five players in the country. Losing them took the luster off of what is a fantastic addition to the class. It’s an interesting phenomenon that Penn State fans can now be “disappointed” with a 4-star player, but it speaks volumes to the work that James Franklin and his staff are doing. If the coaching staff can keep up what they’re doing, Penn State will be in the thick of the national championship discussion more often than not for the foreseeable future. The future is incredibly bright in Happy Valley.