Newsflash: James Franklin is a beast on the recruiting trail.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to those who saw what Franklin built at Vanderbilt -- a place once thought impossible to attract elite recruits. Now it's the Northeast's turn to see Franklin and his Penn State staff work.
Tuesday, Penn State added commitments from offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins and quarterback Brandon Wimbush, two of the top players not just in the Northeast, but in the country as well. This put PSU as the solid current No. 2 on the 247 Sports Composite rankings, behind only Alabama.
But it is that Northeast designation that is very important. Jenkins' commitment represents the first time Penn State has landed the No. 1 prospect in Pennsylvania since 2006 per Rivals.com (or perhaps earlier, depending on the recruiting service you prefer).
And Wimbush, of New Jersey, is a shot across the bow of the Garden State, signaling that the Nittany Lions can come in and battle for almost any prospect they choose. New Jersey has traditionally been a great recruiting territory for Penn State, and for the Nittany Lions to again become an elite program, they will need to mine it while keeping Pennsylvania talent home.
In 2016, Wimbush will be a second-year player for the Nittany Lions. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg very well could be in the NFL, and it might be that Jenkins is protecting Wimbush's blindside in front of 108,000 strong. Perhaps this class can go on to lead Penn State back to a 2016 bowl game in its first year of regained postseason eligibility.
So how's this happening?
James Franklin brings the energy
Many Penn State fans loved head coach Bill O'Brien. He navigated the Nittany Lions through the troubled NCAA waters, kept the team respectable, and represented the university well during a troubled time. But Franklin's level of recruiting is so much better than O'Brien's. And it's not all about the light at the end of the proverbial NCAA sanctions tunnel.
After speaking with half a dozen Penn State commitments and targets over the last month, one thing is clear: there is a different energy and feel under Franklin than there was under O'Brien. The excitement level is through the roof. And because Franklin can sell a specific end date to the sanctions and bowl ban, and that date is coming fairly quickly, he can pitch a true vision of excellence to the prospects. O'Brien couldn't do that. Players signing up to play for O'Brien knew that they'd never be part of a team playing with a full allotment of scholarships, in major bowl games, and so forth. In the interim, Franklin is even using the sanctions as a way to sell prospects on receiving early playing time.
Franklin is both a better recruiting salesman than O'Brien , and he has a better product and future to sell.
Penn State star receiver commitment Juwan Johnson discusses the differences between the old staff and Franklin's group:
Biggest recruiting job yet to come
Penn State's recruiting class is awesome at the moment. 15 commitments, more than half rated four-stars or better, more than half rated among the top 15 prospects at their respective positions. Penn State is limited to 80 scholarship players in 2015, and it looks poised to be able to take up to 17 commitments in this class, depending on attrition, meaning that the class is almost done. That's assuming that Franklin can hold it together.
That assumption, however, might be a bit premature. In the offseason, it is very easy to sell hope for the future. But if Penn State again gets blown out by 20 at Indiana and by 49 at Ohio State, as it did in 2013, the vision and hope for a quick turnaround will be a more difficult sell.
Over the next 273 days until National Signing Day on February 4, these recruits are going to be hearing pitches from other schools. Commitments could begin to waver. Keeping them in the fold will not be easy. It is possible, and having the infrastructure, football culture, and history at Penn State will help, but teams outside the top 25 typically do not sign classes so heavy on four- and five-stars.
Home-grown approach could help
This is where the home-grown element of the recruiting class is going to be very important. 13 of the 15 commitments are from Pennsylvania or an adjacent state.
(Screenshot via Rivals.com.)
Most of Franklin's class is done, but some of the commitments could prove tougher to keep than they were to gain in the first place. Typically, though, the energy and sense of hope and positivity is going to be stronger closer to home, and given that most of the commitments are quite close to Happy Valley, they'll be inundated with the positive Penn State vibe more than players from other regions.
Other B1G teams should take note
Over the last four years, only Ohio State and Michigan have recruited at a an elite level in the Big Ten, with 68 percent of Ohio State signees being four- or five-star recruits, and 55 percent of Michigan's. Penn State, facing some very unique circumstances, was still fourth in the conference at 21 percent.
Penn State's class currently sits at 53 percent.
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And even noting that it's a very small class restricted by sanctions, and that some attrition should probably be expected, this early success should scare the heck out of other Big Ten opponents. If Ohio State and Michigan hold relatively steady in their recruiting and Penn State manages to double its yearly amount of elite prospects (a conservative prediction, given Franklin's recruiting prowess), many of those prospects are likely going to be players that schools like Nebraska, Michigan State, Maryland, and others would have signed. That means the Big Ten could become even more top-heavy than it currently is.
Regardless of whether Franklin can keep this class entirely intact, showcasing the ability to gain commitments from this many top prospects is particularly bad news for the other teams in the Eastern division that don't recruit at a high level. It's conceivable to have a situation in which the top three schools from the Eastern division are routinely signing three or four times the number of elite prospects as the other four teams combined. It's even possible to envision a scenario in which Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are signing double the number of elite prospects in a given year than the conference's other 11 teams combined.
That's a level of top-heaviness not seen in any other conference, and given the lack of talent in the Midwest region, there is not an obvious solution for other schools to mitigate. Though there is perhaps some hope that other B1G schools will see a recruiting benefit from the Eastern expansion.
Conference newcomers Rutgers and Maryland should be particularly concerned about the quickness with which Franklin has brought Penn State back up to speed, not just because their division is about to get a lot tougher, but because they are the two Big Ten schools most likely to be impacted by PSU's resurgence on the recruiting trail in their areas. New Jersey has always been a recruiting stronghold for the Nittany Lions, and that should only improve.
But where Penn State might see some awesome recruiting gains is in Maryland, where Franklin coached the Terrapins' offense for eight years over two stints between 2000-'10. As the map above shows, Penn State already has four commitments from the area, and Franklin is well known by high school coaches and important people in the recruiting world from that area. From a Maryland perspective, not many things have been worse for the Terrapins' local recruiting efforts than Penn State hiring Franklin. And Penn State has to be thrilled with Franklin's ability to mine the talented and underrated DMV area.