STATE COLLEGE, PA. - There are recruits hanging from the ceiling.
Directly above the assembled press and Penn State head coach James Franklin, the Beaver Stadium media room opens to a second floor where 50 or so prospects and their families are leaning over the railing to watch the press conference.
"Obviously it starts with recruiting. Let me repeat that. It starts with recruiting," Franklin says, looking up to the balcony. This causes the gallery to stare at a bunch of high school football players, some of whom smile.
"You know, I can’t say I’ve ever had that kind of a situation [in a press conference]," Franklin says days later on the phone. "It’s never been like that anywhere I’ve ever been, but I’ve never been anywhere like Penn State."
This evangelist is no longer shouting at indifferent passersby as Vanderbilt’s street preacher. In Penn State, Franklin has a congregation dying to heed a message, and in the wake of a 7-6 debut, no message is more useful to the pulpit than recruiting.
In the final ripple of the Jerry Sandusky sanctions, the Nittany Lions only now have a roster approaching the typical 85 scholarships, with a projected 80. Yet expectations are both high and reasonable. Thanks to an opener "at" Temple, Penn State won’t leave Pennsylvania until the night of Oct. 17 at Ohio State, where they could walk in 6-0.
In last year's spring game, the offensive line was so thin that the same unit had to play for both sides. This year's was a marginal improvement -- each squad fielded five linemen -- but the staff planned to shuttle the starters back and forth if a single injury occurred.
Franklin preaches competition, wanting to build a roster "three deep at every position," he says at the Blue-White Spring Game.
That means winning in-state battles. That means expanding into Maryland, New York and New Jersey, which has meant local fanfare. And that means going South, which has meant national interest and Southern derision.
Franklin's staff teamed with small schools in Atlanta and Florida for prospect camps last summer, invoking an NCAA loophole that's changed the face of Big Ten recruiting. Schools like Michigan and Ohio State are following suit, and the locals are pissed.
"There are programs that have been doing [satellite camps] for 10 years. But when we did it last year, it made national headlines," Franklin says. "We’re doing it again [in Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere], and it’s still making national headlines. And other people are doing it now, because the rules allow you to do it.
"I would not be serving Penn State the right way if I wasn’t doing everything within the NCAA and Big Ten rules to give us a chance to be successful."
After the explanation for the SEC's BCS-era dominance became distilled into a matter of local talent, Franklin was the Big Ten coach with the fullest response. The advantage of satellite camps isn't brand exposure, since modern programs recruit nationally as a means of survival. It's early evaluation and contact with high school underclassmen, athletes less likely to attend a camp in Pennsylvania.
"We've been lucky that a lot of the players we wanted fell within our footprint. But we'll go wherever we need to find the players that fit our criteria," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says. "Some of these guys in the '16 class we're talking to right now, we've had relationships with for almost three years. It's unreal how early the relationships begin now."
"You can characterize it however you want. But I’m going to say we’re going to be really aggressive in recruiting, because to me that’s as important as part as everything else," Franklin says. "When you study the history of when Penn State was dominant, they got great players out of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, but they got players out of South Carolina. South Carolina was a really good state to Penn State for a long time. Florida was a good state. New York, all of New England.
"To be honest, I don’t know if we’re doing it a whole lot different than then. But it hasn’t happened here in a long time. If you look at the success Penn State was having and when things started to change, that’s the biggest difference. That national recruiting wasn’t happening consistently."
The investment in national (and Southern) exposure is still the long game. Aside from carrying a group of former Vanderbilt commitments to State College, the roster is local. The six current 2016 commitments all fall within the conference footprint, indicative of the construction model: first win Pennsylvania, then battle in Michigan and Ohio and get fierce across the new borders, the home of Maryland and Rutgers.
Franklin's first two recruiting classes made the 247Sports Composite's top 25, which Penn State hadn't done since 2010.
"I love when coaches bring recruits in, because [current players] are the best recruiters," says senior defensive end Evan Schwan. "We live the lifestyle. And we can be honest with them, that it's going to be difficult. But with these coaches, it's going to be the greatest experience of your life."
As a product of nearby Harrisburg, Schwan says he dreamed his entire life of playing for PSU and never wavered through the Joe Paterno twilight. He's ideal for proselytizing Franklin's mission to that second recruiting base, the stands.
At the Blue-White Game, a fan base defined by its idolatry seems to have found peace with the future.
Inside James Franklin's Vanderbilt
Inside James Franklin's Vanderbilt
"I love Franklin. I hope he's here for a long time. And I think he will be, because he's from the state and he genuinely loves Pennsylvania," says a 29-year-old fan named Steve.
Steve's wearing a navy FRANKLION T-shirt. Penn State's apparel has always reflected the reverence for the man in charge. There are still fans wandering around in blue shirts that read BILL, as in transition head coach O'Brien, but there are more homages to Franklin than even Paterno. Sure, the statue is gone, but so is the space where the statue once was, replaced by landscaping.
"I think he's getting time from the fans," says Steve. "They know he wants to come in and run a SEC offense and a SEC program. I think people are pretty excited about that. They want to be excited, I know."
"We’re going to do whatever we have to do, wherever it is, to find the players we need," Franklin says. "I’m studying what’s in the best interest of Penn State. And I spend a lot of time studying best practices, what other people are doing around the country. And I always get upset and a little bit angry when someone does something before we do. I want us to be on the cutting edge."