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Penn State succeeding at recruiting, despite more scandal fallout than you realized

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Inside Signing Day, where Nittany Lions coaches are fired up about fresh starts, even though fresh starts at PSU remain complex.

James Franklin video chats with a new signee
James Franklin video chats with a new signee
Photos via Penn State Athletics

STATE COLLEGE, PA. -- Late in the afternoon on National Signing Day someone at the University of Pittsburgh student union found the fax number for the football offices at Penn State.

PSU graduate assistants discovered the message, which featured some colorful greetings and a mention of the two schools' Sept. 10 meeting at Heinz Field.

"I think some of the young crowd back there are going to fire back at ‘em. It's just that in-state stuff," new defensive coordinator Brent Pry said before excusing himself. Coaches passed around a cell phone, with a 2017 prospect on the line.

Pry laughed when he relayed this, just as the Pitt student union (I assume) was laughing. Under head coach James Franklin there's been a mandate for this kind of levity in the football program's Lasch building.

"I've read some stuff that said that one of my challenges here is that I've been so positive, that I've been such an optimist, that it's created this sense that everything is fine," Franklin said.

Building toward Franklin's third year and the school's fifth post-Joe Paterno, nothing is ever just fine. Controlling the narrative seems to be more crucial than anywhere else in the country.

"When I got the job, the previous staff, as well as the administration, told us that Year 3 and 4 would be the most difficult years," Franklin said.

That previous staff was led by Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, who once said that the Penn State supporters he felt were more loyal to Paterno's legacy than the actual program made him want to put his fist through the windshield of his car.

O'Brien lasted two seasons, navigating Penn State's post-Jerry Sandusky psyche. Then Franklin, the brash salesman from upstart Vanderbilt, took over a roster with perilous depth. At one point, Penn State had just one upperclassman scholarship offensive lineman.

Emotional and combative on behalf the no-name Commodores, Franklin's intent at PSU was to kill with kindness, no matter what.

"I went from having a chip on my shoulder, fighting everyone all the time for respect for our players and our program, to coming here and having to be so positive," he said. "But then it's funny, because it's been said that since I've arrived, I've been so positive that it's created unrealistic expectations."

It's been a battle for that narrative since his first day. Franklin's staff has 14 wins and earned two bowl bids with a roster crippled by sanctions, coaching turnover (counting interims, Franklin was the fifth head coach in a 27-month period) and poor scheme fits, especially on offense.

Explaining the continued influence of the NCAA sanctions would shape the best perception possible of Franklin's two 7-6 seasons, of his great-but-not-amazing 2016 class, of the struggle to fit an offense around Christian Hackenberg in 2014 and '15.

But not surprisingly, there's heavy baggage involved.

"Look, people are sick of talking about that," Franklin said. "They don't want to talk about that. They don't want to hear about it. They just want to move on."

Regardless, the new Penn State largely functions as a response to Sandusky.

One example: Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan in November and lost defensive coordinator Bob Shoop (Tennessee) and offensive line coach Herb Hand (Auburn) before Signing Day. Replacing assistants during recruiting season is commonplace, but school HR policies in the wake of Sandusky, and 2012 changes to Pennsylvania's Child Protective Services Law require any Penn State hire who comes in contact with minors to pass a series of background checks.

Multiple sources outside of Penn State told SB Nation that when recruiting for the '16 class, new PSU assistant coaches were required to travel with established coaches and could not interact with recruits on their own.

When pressed, Franklin and his staff deferred comment to Penn State, who confirmed background checks for two of the three new coaches -- offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and safeties coach Tim Banks -- didn't clear in time for them to recruit by themselves before Signing Day.

A university attorney provided a statement:

As you can imagine, obtaining clearances can be a lengthy process. As such, [Pennsylvania] does allow employers to provisionally hire individuals for an initial period not to exceed 90 days. As required by law, coaches who are provisionally hired must work with another employee until they have obtained all of the clearance results.

While the situation isn't comparable to NCAA penalties restricting in-home visits, having seven coaches in the field instead of nine is a hindrance. Under current guidelines, this will repeat any time Penn State replaces a coach.

And as a state law, this applies to any publicly funded university. The University of Pittsburgh confirmed that its new coaches (Pitt just replaced its offensive coordinator) have to fulfill state background checks before recruiting solo, as well.

"I don't think it's a reach when I say that this is the most unique and the most sophisticated job in America," Franklin said. "It's challenging now to be a college football coach anywhere because of attention and the magnitude. So, you take the same policies and procedures, and we probably have 35 to 50 more than anywhere in the country."

There's also the issue of negative recruiting. Behind closed doors, any aspect of Paterno's fall and Sandusky's prosecution is fair game for other coaches to talk about to recruits. That's another reason for Franklin to adhere to his total positivity campaign. He wouldn't elaborate on specific rival schools or subject matter.

"Some of the things we have to battle on the road and in recruiting ... nobody else in the country has to battle," he said.

Branding a positive message for season three began very early on Signing Day.

An omelette bar and thumping pop music greeted a group of boosters, administrators and media, brought in as a kind of studio audience. Penn State filmed Franklin and his staff FaceTiming with recruits and their families. As each Letter of Intent rolled in, coaches announced names at a podium, in the vein of the NFL Draft.

Four-star defensive end Shane Simmons' LOI arrived, and he became the "first pick." The FaceTime connection cleared up. Simmons was with his family at home in Hyattsville, Md.

"Where are you going to celebrate tonight?" Franklin asked.

"We're all going out, Buffalo Wild Wings," Simmons responded.

"Ah, so Mom's got it organized with all the other Maryland recruits?" Franklin asked. Both the coaches and Simmons' family laughed.

When No. 1 overall running back Miles Sanders and his mother appeared on the wall of televisions, the room erupted.

"Mom, you and I could write a book one day about this process!" Franklin said to her.

Every time a new Lion appeared, Franklin demanded the player hug his parents and vocally promise that the head coach and the signee would have each others' backs.

That's a public act of fealty with heavy subtext: Franklin's personal signature on each new addition to the roster. In 2016, fewer than 20 players from O'Brien will be on roster, none from the Paterno era.

The 2016 signees ranked third in the Big Ten and make for Franklin's third consecutive top-25 class at Happy Valley, a stark contrast to PSU's three classes prior. When his staff arrived after the 2013 season, none of the top-10 prospects in Pennsylvania was committed to PSU.

Considered by many fans as a recruiter more than anything else, Franklin watched Penn State suffer multiple decommitments and hat ceremony losses in the 2016 home stretch. Jim Harbaugh has supplanted Franklin as the B1G's media savant. Far more troublesome to some was the war at home.

In-state rivals Pitt and Temple both flipped commitments from PSU.

Adding to this anxiety is the lack of a chest-beating signature win. Franklin's Lions are 0-6 vs. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, plus two losses to Northwestern and the first loss to Temple in 74 years. The Lions haven't won a game since Illinois in October, closing on a four-game skid capped by a 39-point blowout at Michigan State and a loss to coachless Georgia.

About that fax. Not 72 hours prior, Pitt flipped three-star safety Aaron Matthews from Penn State by promising him a shot at receiver. Much to the angst of vocal PSU fans, Matthews helped Pitt fill out a top-30 class. Franklin tests his own sworn positivity when focus strays from the success of landing the No. 1 running back and company.

"It's expectation and perception," Franklin said in his office at the end of the day.

"Take another program where we go 7-6. There's other programs that have very similar records, and because the expectation is not the same at those programs, at those places, it's viewed completely different. There's programs within hours of here that had one more win, but you would think they played for a national championship. But again, that goes back to the expectation at Penn State. To me, that's a good thing. But it's that lens. How are you looking at it? How is the media covering it? How are the fans perceiving it?"

The staff is invigorated by the concept of a New Year 1.

Former linebackers coach Pry is considered as seamless a transition as possible from Shoop.

New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's results as the head coach of Fordham were freakish -- such as 14 yards a reception -- and he'll be tasked with finding a way to use Sanders and starting back Saquon Barkley.

"When I've gone out to evaluate [Penn State's] roster, I don't want to say it's adequate depth," Moorhead said. "But in needs by number of scholarships per position, the number you're supposed to have at each position, we're now at that number in each position group. And there's talent within those groups to be successful in the scheme we're going to implement."

Moorhead was hired in time to coach in the bowl vs. UGA, but he and Franklin determined to hold off until spring. Formations and personnel will differ, but Moorhead's primary goal for '16 will be to push tempo, although he said he's been given full control to install his offense without modification.

Although Pry's defense will lose a lot of experience across the defensive front, the whole of the roster is the most balanced and deep its been, post-sanctions. PSU return 276 career starts in 2016, according to StateCollege.com, compared to 132 in O'Brien's first year.

"When you look at the things just under the surface, in our realm, in the Penn State realm, the coaching changes, the attrition, the machine that's here, it perpetuated a sense that wasn't real," Pry said. "Anyone that has knowledge of what's gone on in our program looks at it like this is year one."

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