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Back on Track

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“Ya’ll must’ve forgot.” -James Franklin

National Signing Day Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

When Penn State hired James Franklin in 2014, it was immediately expected that the Nittany Lions would clean up on the recruiting trail. He brought in some former Vanderbilt commits for the 2014 class — one which was losing a lot of steam down the stretch when Bill O’Brien was still the head man — which solidified its spot as a Top 25 class. The 2015 class got off to a scorching hot start, at one point holding the No. 1 class in April 2014. While the class, expectedly, tapered off as the recruiting year went along, it was the No. 14 ranked class in the country — certainly something for Franklin to build upon.

The 2016 and 2017 classes were a mixed bag. In 2016, Penn State signed three Top 50 prospects in Miles Sanders, Michal Menet, and Shane Simmons, but really struggled to close late, thanks in large part to the Franklin regime losing some luster after another meager 7-6 season. The 2017 class got off to a slow start for the same reason, but it turns out that once you win the Big Ten title, recruits want to play for you.

Franklin took advantage of the strong 2016 and 2017 seasons, with those fruits being shown in the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes. Over those two classes, Penn State signed 46 prospects — 72% were at least four-star players (aka “blue chips”), with 24% being ranked as Top 100 players. To put those numbers in perspective, here are what some College Football Playoff contenders did over those same two classes:

  • Clemson: 54% BCR || 22% Top 100
  • Oklahoma: 62% BCR || 19% Top 100
  • Notre Dame: 61% BCR || 14% Top 100

That recruiting stretch is no joke. It wasn’t perfect — we’ll get to what those classes lacked in a second — but Penn State was building out a roster that was absolutely at a College Football Playoff level.

The 2020 class saw a drop off; the average rating of a prospect in the class was 89.54, down from 91.01 in 2019. But all-in-all, especially given the previous two classes, it wasn’t too shabby. The issue? Another drop off came in 2021, and this one was much more severe. Granted it was just a 17-player class, but only six players in the class carried at least a four-star rating, giving the class a BCR of 35% — the lowest BCR a James Franklin class has had at Penn State since the inaugural 2014 class, which only had Franklin recruiting for it for like 3.5 weeks.

So heading into the 2022 recruiting class, Franklin could not afford another down year on the recruiting trail. He needed this class to be a bounce back class; the type of class that was much closer to the 2018 or 2019 versions than the 2020 or 2021 versions. With the Nittany Lions’ lackluster performance on the field in 2020, that was going to be a tall task. Fortunately, Franklin and Co. have answered it.

First and foremost, they got off to a strong start, landing six four-star prospects — Kaden Saunders, Jerry Cross, Beau Pribula, Drew Shelton, Ken Talley, and Anthony Ivery — before the 2020 season even commenced. While there was certainly a “re-recruitment” process for most of these guys as the winter, spring, and summer came (thus the “107%” committed tweets each commit sent out), the quick start on the recruiting trail gave the class the necessary momentum it needed to combat the mediocre on-the-field performance in 2020.

Strong starts will only get you so far though. What really put this class into overdrive was the NCAA lifting the dead period and allowing official visits. To say the Nittany Lions cleaned up on the recruiting trail post-official visits would be an understatement. They landed the following prospects during (basically) a one-month span from June 21-July 22:

  • WR Tyler Johnson
  • JUCO OL JB Nelson
  • LB Keon Wylie
  • DE Tyrease Fearbry
  • DT Zane Durant
  • DT Kaleb Artis
  • RB Nicholas Singleton
  • RB Kaytron Allen
  • CB Jordan Allen
  • DE Dani Dennis-Sutton

That’s the definition of “closing” on the recruiting trail. Plus, expect that number to grow as July comes to an end. Secondary prospects like Cristian Driver, Cam Miller, and Kevin Winston all plan to announce their commitments before August, so the prosperous summer for the Nittany Lions isn’t quite over yet.

So a much needed class for Franklin and this program. It remains to be seen if it’ll be good enough to finish in the Top 5, but even if it doesn’t, it has the makings of perhaps being the most important class that Penn State has signed because of two pieces in particular: QB Drew Allar and DE Dani Dennis-Sutton.

No two prospects ever make or break a class. And as we’ve seen with the likes of some other Top 50 prospects, it’s not a guarantee that the recruiting rating matches the on-the-field production. But if there are two spots you want to bring in elite pieces, it’s quarterback and defensive end. So yes, the depth of this class is important. But the fact it’ll be headlined by perhaps the most talented quarterback and defensive end that has signed with Penn State during Franklin’s tenure — to me, shows that things are back in the right direction.