Dominate The Region: James Franklin’s Quest To Conquer The Northeast
When James Franklin was announced as the 16th head coach in Penn State history on Jan. 11, 2014, the Langhorne, Pennsylvania native did not mince words when talking about his goals to return the Nittany Lions to national championship contention. To compete at the highest level, it starts from the bottom, the foundation of college football — recruiting.
“Our recruiting philosophy, we are going to dominate the state,” Franklin said during his introductory press conference. “We are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region.”
It wasn’t long before “Dominate The State” became a familiar rallying cry for the team and its fans, appearing on everything from bumper stickers and t-shirts to hashtags and posts on social media. Always media savvy, Franklin and his coaching staff have interacted with the community since day one, something the older regimes did not fully embrace. In his first week on campus, Franklin took selfies with students in the Roar Zone at Pegula Arena. Herb Hand invited the State College community to Onward State’s Inaugural Pizza Crawl to sample the best slices in town. At the first Signature Event, fans were invited to attend a celebration to welcome the 2014 recruiting class to the university. All of this, in an effort to strengthen the bond between team and community.
Now, after wrapping up his second recruiting class — the first full one since 2011 — Franklin has proved his ability to live up to the lofty expectations he set on his first day on the job.
Of Penn State’s 25 recruits, 22 are within a 350-mile radius of State College, including 12 from Pennsylvania, five from New Jersey, and five from the Maryland-Virginia-Washington, D.C. region.
In-state, the run of dominance is even more telling. Each of Pennsylvania’s top five recruits signed their letters of intent to play at Penn State on Wednesday, while eight of the top 10 are official Nittany Lions, according to ranking from 247 Sports. According to ESPN’s recruiting rankings, Penn State received commitments from eight of the state’s top 14 players, while Pitt received only two. In fact, in the last week of recruiting leading up to National Signing Day, Franklin was able to flip three-star tight end Nick Bowers and defensive lineman Kevin Givens, two Pittsburgh natives, from the Panthers to the Nittany Lions. Of the 17 prospects that were offered scholarships by both Pitt and Penn State, 16 chose the Lions.
“We take great pride in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Franklin at Wednesday’s press conference, noting that the 11 commits from Pennsylvania are the most since 2004. “We take great pride in this region. We have tremendous respect for the teachers in this state in preparing our guys and getting them ready to come to Penn State.”
When Franklin took over last year, there wasn’t one player in the top 10 committed from the state of Pennsylvania. Now, the Lions practically own the top 10.
“When you look at our coaching staff, I’m from Pennsylvania, Bob Shoop is from Oakmont, Brent Pry is from Altoona, John Donovan is from New Jersey, Herb Hand is from New York,” Franklin said. “We’ve just got so many guys. Terry Smith had a huge impact in western PA.”
“You make it a priority to keep the best players in this region home, you’re going to do that,” Franklin added, “and I think we can do better going forward.”
For Franklin and the coaching staff, building relationships with in-state coaches was key. There’s also a level of familiarity with the players that comes from being geographically linked. For a recruit in another part of the country, Franklin said it’s hard to gauge his talent and comfort level. With an in-state recruit, you can work him out in camp, see him compete, and know exactly what his height, weight, reach, and speed measures are without having to rely on recruiting sites.
“Nobody is as fast as they say they are,” Franklin said. “You go on Rivals or 247 right now, there’s about 60 kids that run a 4.3 (40-yard dash). You go to the NFL Combine, there’s six. I don’t know where they all went. But the fact that you can get the kids here on campus — that’s valuable information. I’d rather take a guy who I know who’s 4.5 on our clock. Knowing is really important in eliminating mistakes.”
On a national level, Penn State’s class finishes ranked No. 12 in the country according to Scout, and No. 14 by both Rivals and 247 Sports. Penn State’s 11 four-star commitments ranks t-8th in the country and second in the Big Ten behind defending national champion Ohio State.
While the 2014 class finished a respectable 24th in the country according to Rivals, including key contributors like safety Marcus Allen, cornerbacks Christian Campbell and Grant Haley, and wide receivers Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall, this year’s class stands as an encouraging sign of improvement for a program looking to put the clamps on the entire northeastern region.
To show how much ground Franklin has covered in this year, consider this: The average rank across the different scouting services this season was ranked 11th nationally, compared to an average ranking of 34th over the past five years.
Josh Gattis, the offensive recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach, knows how important that national perception can be. Gattis made noise recently for a tweet he sent that shamed negative recruiting tactics on the heels of Penn State’s commitment of former Pitt verbal Kevin Givens. While both Franklin and Givens denied directing the message at Pitt, Gattis understands how critical it is for Penn State to continue luring top-tier in-state recruits.
“We want to build a fence around the state of Pennsylvania,” Gattis said. “When we talk about dominating the state, that’s not only the state, but the region. We want to make sure we’re getting the best players from New Jersey, Virginia, D.C., the whole DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area.”
“We take tremendous pride in representing the state of Pennsylvania,” Gattis added. “We want to make sure from this day moving forward, all the best players in the state of Pennsylvania come to Penn State to take on the pride of blue and white.”
With Urban Meyer coming off three dominating seasons highlighted by a championship at Ohio State and ex-Super Bowl head coach Jim Harbaugh digging his heels in at Michigan, the recruiting battle will largely determine who claims the Big Ten’s top spot for years to come. With the 2015 class signed, sealed, and delivered, Franklin and Penn State are well on their way toward competing for a spot in the playoffs.