Franklin’s recruits top Paterno’s final classes, helping explain Penn State's success
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The scoreboard read 13-3, Minnesota, as the Nittany Lions trudged back to the Beaver Stadium locker room at halftime on a dreary Saturday in October.
Rain fell on the turf. A “fire Franklin” chant rang out, briefly, from a disgruntled student section, which had watched from afar the week before as the Lions got routed in Ann Arbor by No. 4 Michigan, 49-10.
In that moment, it seemed Penn State had a long way to go before it could compete with the nation’s top teams.
Combine the Michigan defeat with an earlier loss to intrastate rival Pittsburgh and there wasn’t much hope in Happy Valley. That is, until some of Penn State’s most talented young athletes started making plays and turning around the Nittany Lions’ season.
In the second half of the Minnesota game, there was redshirt freshman Irvin Charles catching an 80-yard touchdown pass from redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley. There was McSorley’s score on a gritty 6-yard keeper. And, in overtime, there was sophomore phenom Saquon Barkley bursting through the line for a game-winning 25-yard TD.
Since that Minnesota comeback, the Nittany Lions have not lost a game. After starting out the season 2-2, they upset second-ranked Ohio State, won the Big Ten East, and then came back from 21 points down to beat No. 6 Wisconsin in the conference championship. While they just missed the college football playoff, they are set to take on Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
“That is the story of the year in college football,” Kirk Herbstreit said on “ESPN College GameDay” after the Ohio State upset, “for the job that James Franklin has done and this Penn State team has done.”
Across the country, many have tried to explain Penn State’s sudden success.
Perhaps Joe Moorhead’s offensive expertise, his up tempo spread attack, provided the needed spark.
Perhaps the return of starting linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell jolted the defense just enough to overpower the Buckeyes.
“That is the story of the year in college football.” Kirk Herbstreit
Perhaps the team’s chemistry, its cohesiveness built in those tough early weeks, kept them believing in every game, even when they were down late to Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Of course, many factors contributed to the Nittany Lions’ breakthrough. But one thing that’s been largely overlooked was right there on the field all along: Penn State’s post-Joe Paterno players.
An analysis of the last 10 years of Penn State recruiting by a student reporter in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism found that, to some extent Bill O’Brien’s recruits, but particularly Franklin’s, topped the late classes of Paterno. That statement is based on the rankings each member of each class got from ESPN’s analysts when he signed his letter of intent. The reporter reviewed that data, and compared the Penn State classes against each other.
Recruiting played a particularly important role in the Penn State story because, after former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of child sex abuse in 2012, the NCAA hit the school with sanctions that reduced the number of football scholarships to as few as 65, down from the normal 85.
That made depth a problem for the Nittany Lions. However, O’Brien’s 2013 class was slightly better than Paterno’s last class, in 2011. (The Curley Center did not factor the 2012 class in, which was signed just after O’Brien was hired and Paterno had died).
O’Brien left for the NFL in late 2013 but he set the foundation for Franklin to elevate Penn State recruiting.
Among the key findings of the analysis:
- Franklin’s recruits in 2015 and 2016 had an average rating of 79.4 on the scale of 0 to 100 used by ESPN. Paterno’s final recruiting classes in 2010 and 2011 averaged 77.5.
- In the 2015 and 2016 classes, Franklin’s recruits’ ratings ranged from 71 to 89. Comparatively, in 2010 and 2011, Paterno’s recruits ranged from 70 to 81.
- In Franklin’s 2016 class, defensive end Shane Simmons had a rating of 89, which made him the most highly touted recruit since quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg, a member of Bill O’Brien’s 2013 class, received an 88.
- In Paterno’s final six recruiting classes, the top recruit was defensive end Maurice Evans, who in 2006 received a 91 rating. Only two other Paterno recruits were ranked above an 85 in those final six years. Franklin has brought three recruits to Penn State above an 85 in three seasons.
The other 13 Big Ten teams’ recruiting classes also were analyzed. For the most part, they mirror the schools’ on-field performances, with few exceptions. Michigan’s and Ohio State’s recruiting classes were substantially better than their conference competitors’ in the last five years.
In the post-Paterno era, Penn State’s recruiting prowess has kept pace, and at times even slightly exceeded, that of schools like Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Yet as Penn State’s recruiting has improved in recent years, so has the recruiting of their most challenging Big Ten competitors.
Take the Wolverines, for example.
In three of the last four Michigan classes (2013, 2014, and 2016), the Wolverines’ recruits had an average numeric rating of 80. After Brady Hoke was fired and the eccentric Jim Harbaugh was hired in late 2014, Michigan’s average bumped up from 78.6 in 2015 to 80.4 in 2016.
Similarly, in Columbus, coach Urban Meyer has revolutionized Buckeye recruiting.
Meyer was hired in late 2011. While that next 2012 recruiting class had a numeric average of 78.5, each class since has averaged between an 81 and an 83.
Meyer’s first true recruiting class in 2013, which was bolstered by cornerback Eli Apple, was his highest so far with an 83.3 average rating.
Yet not all conference schools have been able to keep up. And in fact, for one, joining the Big Ten was soon followed by a downward trend in recruiting.
The year Rutgers started competing in the Big Ten, 2014, its recruiting class averaged 74.5, down more than an entire point from the previous year’s average.
The Scarlet Knights’ 2015 class bounced back a little, averaging 75. However, in 2016, even before off-the-field issues involving player and coach misconduct, the class averaged 73.4, the lowest it had been since 2006.
Sitting in the back of a crowded media room in Piscataway, N.J., after Penn State shut out Rutgers 39-0 last month, Nittany Lion defensive end Evan Schwan found it a little hard to believe just how much his team had improved in just a few years.
Schwan, a redshirt senior, arrived at Penn State right after the NCAA sanctions, which originally included not only the loss of scholarships but a four-year bowl ban, a $60 million fine, and the vacating of some of Paterno’s wins.
“I never thought as a freshman that we’d be in the position that we are now,” he said.
Redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Sickels felt much the same way. “When I committed I wasn’t expecting to play in a bowl … we weren’t going to be bowl eligible,” he said. “So I was just going to play for Penn State and my teammates. To have this opportunity is unbelievable.”
Two weeks after Penn State beat Minnesota, the Lions faced their next test: the Buckeyes. More than 107,000 fans packed into Beaver Stadium. Scores of recruits lined the sidelines.
They watched the fourth-quarter thriller, which ended in a storming of the field by students that was met with virtually no resistance by stadium staff. Recruits ran toward the 50-yard line, holding their cell phones high in the air, taking video of the sea of white surrounding them.
Franklin and his staff know how important those white out games can be for recruiting.
“I think if you talk to our players, a lot of the guys on our team were at Penn State for a white out,” Franklin said. “I went back and looked at that Michigan, four-overtime white out, and somebody had posted pictures of all the guys that were at that game and a bunch of guys that signed with us … They look like babies, it’s amazing.”
Junior tight end Mike Gesicki and junior safety Marcus Allen were in attendance at that quadruple overtime win back in 2013. Afterward, Allen tweeted a photo of him decked out in Penn State gear. Gesicki put it simply: “Oh.my.goodness.” Gesicki, a New Jersey native, has credited that game with solidifying his decision.
Soon after the Ohio State win, assistant coach Terry Smith, Penn State’s defensive recruiting coordinator, said he would be pleased with securing one or two of the 100-plus recruits who were on the sidelines.
“If we turn around and lay an egg against Purdue,” Smith said before the game against the Boilermakers, “then what good is that [Ohio State] victory?”
But Penn State didn’t lay an egg. Led by Barkley, the Lions thumped Purdue and then Iowa, before McSorley shook off a couple of interceptions and brought Penn State back from a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter to beat Indiana. The next week, the Nittany Lions routed Rutgers.
"I wanted to come to a place where I can make an impact." Saquon Barkley
In high school, Barkley made a verbal commitment to the Scarlet Knights, whom he rooted for growing up in the Lehigh Valley. But watching O’Brien’s 2013 Lions come from behind and beat Michigan in quadruple overtime changed Barkley’s mind.
After the running back’s family talked to Franklin and his staff, Barkley signed on, and hasn’t looked back since.
“I wanted to come to a place where I can make an impact,” the sophomore said. “We got something special going right now. We know that. We’re aware of that. I’m just happy that I’m able to be part of that. … Coming to this school was the best decision of my life.”
Franklin’s arrival at Penn State in January 2014 marked the end of a tumultuous two years in State College.
Before the Sandusky case, Paterno had been at the helm for 45 years. In his later years, he seldom traveled to players’ houses. Instead of living room talks with parents, there were conversations in the octogenarian’s office.
O’Brien came in to mend and keep the program intact at a time when there were concerns about just trying to field a team, let alone win football games.
Franklin, who in three years had vastly improved the football program at Vanderbilt, appeared a more permanent fix. His reputation as an aggressive and effective salesman to recruits preceded him.
At his introductory press conference inside Beaver Stadium, that focus was clear. He rolled out his “Dominate the State” slogan, a promise to amp up recruiting.
“I’ve worked a lot of different institutions that tried to compete in recruiting against Penn State University, and it was always an unbelievable challenge,” said Franklin, a native of Langhorne and an East Stroudsburg graduate. “I think with everybody pulling the rope in the same direction there is no reason why we can’t take this program where everybody wants it to be.”
Back in 2014, Franklin also spoke of uniting the community around football once again, a theme he raised again after the team’s Pinstripe Bowl win later that year.
The 2016 team did that, deflecting some attention away from several Sandusky-related developments in recent months.
Former graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who said he witnessed Sandusky abusing a child in a locker room shower, was awarded more than $12 million in a defamation suit against the university. Separately, Penn State was fined $2.4 million by the U.S. Department of Education for failing to comply with federal on-campus crime disclosure laws between 1998 and 2011, a penalty handed down after an investigation of the Sandusky case.
But as a team and a community, Penn State is looking forward, not back.
“This is a foundation,” Franklin said after the Big Ten championship. “And the fortunate thing is we get to continue building on that foundation this year.”
Then he got back to work. After the championship win over Wisconsin, where was the head coach?
Out on the recruiting trail, looking to sign the class of 2017. And 2018.