Penn State assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Terry Smith called Miles Sanders the Tuesday night prior to National Signing Day, and asked if he was OK.
He called him again Wednesday morning, half-joking, rattling off questions like “Did you brush your teeth? What’d you have for breakfast?
“Are you OK?”
He called him again as Sanders was walking to the fax machine to send Penn State football his National Letter of Intent.
“I was on the phone with Miles and his mom last night, and there were still schools calling him as I was on the phone with him,” said Smith, of the nation’s top running back, a five-star out of Pittsburgh who was the first to verbally commit to the Nittany Lions. “You want to talk about making sure you recruit a kid all the way ’til the 12th hour. …
“I’m on the phone with him this morning making sure everything is everything, just kind of, ‘Hey, how ya doin‘, did you eat OK? Did you brush your teeth?’ Just kind of buying some time as they walk to the fax machine, making sure ... ‘Oh, is that the fax machine I hear?!’
“We laugh, but it’s true. You do what you have to do because some teams came hard at him.”
Hard enough, “relentless and aggressive” enough (to hear head coach James Franklin tell it), to inspire victorious yelling from Franklin, a smiling sigh from Smith and a thudding chest bump and clasped hands between receivers coach Josh Gattis and running backs coach Charles Huff on Wednesday morning after it was officially announced that Sanders had sent in his NLI.
“They can’t hate hard enough,” Gattis barked at Huff. “They can’t hate hard enough.”
The “they,” of course, was the many, many other schools that actively pursued Sanders during the recruiting process, especially as the window to signing day tightened. Franklin said during his end-of-year presser in January that “negative recruiting” was a big problem the team had run into throughout the heavy commit push during and after bowl season.
“At the end of the recruiting period, it can get aggressive, and it can get nasty, and it can get relentless at times,” said Franklin. “I think we’ve been fortunate that we’ve got kids that get that. And what happens is if you leave the door cracked open for people to come in, that’s what they’re going to do, they’re going to attack.”
Menet: About a month ago, and about 261 miles away, five-star offensive lineman Michal Menet got a little “nastiness” himself.
Herb Hand, Penn State’s former offensive line coach, had just announced his decision to leave for Auburn. Other schools naturally began sniffing around the highly touted prospect from Reading.
“We lost (Hand),” said Franklin. “And another offensive line coach in the conference called him and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you know, we really want you at (School X) and they don’t have a line coach at Penn State right now. ... So are you interested?’”
Franklin said Menet, his family and even his high school coaches had been fully committed to the Nittany Lions “very early on,” and his response (to who is rumored to be the Michigan State offensive line coach) perfectly displayed that.
“Well,” Franklin recounted Menet telling the coach, “If you want me, you’d better take the Penn State O-line job.”
Both will likely see the field immediately in the fall, as Sanders hopes to be the “two” in a “1-2 punch” combination of himself and phenom Saquon Barkley, who will be a sophomore next season. And Menet is a much-needed talent addition to a struggling offensive line.
“Menet’s a guy who I think has the athletic ability to play tackle, has the intelligence to play center, has the power to play guard,” said Franklin.
There’s more room for him to do so on the line than there is at running back — despite Smith’s confirmation that athletic back Nick Scott would be switching to play defense, a role his speed and mentality is suited for and a move that frees up space in a loaded group of backs.
But as both Smith and Franklin attested, it takes a special kind of player to not only stand by his original commitment when the big powerhouses like Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State and the like came calling.
“(It takes) a mature kid,” said Smith. “And that’s what we want at Penn State. We don’t want knee-jerk reactors, those kinds of kids don’t tend to do well here. They don’t tend to do well when you get into big moments in big games, and you’re in the fourth quarter and it’s fourth down and you need a big play. Life is a pattern in all phases of your life. So we want mature kids who can handle responsibility, and understand situations and make sure they can handle it in a professional and businesslike manner.
“I feel like Miles was incredible the whole way through.”
Franklin added that in the final six months or so of Sanders’ recruitment, their experience was less like recruiting and more like “a celebration.”
It also took considerable effort by Penn State, of course, because an 18-year-old kid is bound to be tempted by the big names in the current college football landscape, no matter how mature.
“We want to be up front and forthright, and sometimes that hurts us,” said Smith. “The biggest thing is communicating.
“When we started recruiting Miles Sanders two years ago, we developed a plan with his mother and him from day one to really be prepared for the onslaught.”
Smith said that at the time Sanders was offered by Penn State, the running back only had two offers altogether. But Smith knew his potential after Sanders ran all over his high school team a couple of years ago.
“We knew offers were going to come, and we were prepared for that,” he said. “We held to him and kept recruiting him, but there were times, like any kid, where he thought ‘Man, what-if, should I go visit another school? I never really got a chance to go out there,’ and we just kept recruitin‘, kept communicating. His mom was terrific, and she was supportive the whole way through, kept his mind focused. ... When his fax came through, man, what a blessing for us.”
Following is a list of Penn State's 2016 recruits
Will Fries, offensive line, Cranford, N.J., Cranford High School, 6-6, 290
Connor McGovern, offensive line, Larksville, Pa., Lake-Lehman High School, 6-5, 310
Michal Menet, offensive line, Birdsboro, Pa., Exeter Township Senior High School, 6-4, 285
Miles Sanders, running back, Pittsburgh, Pa., Woodland Hills High School, 5-11, 195
Shane Simmons, defensive line, Laurel, Md., DeMatha High School, 6-3, 230
Jake Zembiec, quarterback, Rochester, N.Y., Aquinas Institute, 6-3, 205
Alex Barbir, kicker, Cumming, Ga., South Forsyth High School, 5-9, 195.
Cameron Brown, linebacker, Burtonsville, Md., Bullis School, 6-5, 210
Tyrell Chavis, defensive lineman, Richmond, Va., Nassau C.C., 6-3, 295
Danny Dalton, tight end, Marshfield, Mass., Marshfield High School, 6-4, 240
Dae’lun Darien, wide receiver, Baltimore, Md., Dunbar High School, 6-4, 195
Alex Gellerstedt, offensive line, Dublin, Ohio, Dublin Coffman High School, 6-6, 275
Blake Gillikin, punter, kicker, Smyrna, Ga., The Westminster Schools, 6-2, 182
T.J. Johnson, defensive back, Cleveland, Ohio, Euclid High School, 6-2, 180
Ellison Jordan, defensive line, Upper Marlboro, Md., Gilman School, 6-0, 280
Daniel Joseph, defensive line, Lake Forest, Ill., Lake Forest Academy, 6-3, 255
Zech McPhearson, defensive back, Columbia, Md., Riverdale Baptist School, 5-11, 175
Antonio Shelton, defensive line, Gahanna, Ohio, Westerville-North High School, 6-2, 290
Shaka Toney, defensive line, Philadelphia, Pa., Imhotep Institute Charter School, 6-3, 300
Brenon Thrift, defensive line, Monroeville, Pa., Lackawanna C.C., 6-3, 285
Note: Recruiting stars according to Rivals.com.
CONSENSUS TOP 25
But using the numbers available at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and taking an average of the four most popular web sites that rank the classes (Rivals, Scout, 247Sports and ESPN) here is a “consensus” top 25 for the 2016 college football recruiting season.
2. Florida State
3. Ohio State
14. Notre Dame
17. Texas A&M
19. Penn State
25. North Carolina