STATE COLLEGE — James Franklin could have held this news conference in August.
Back then, he had one of the top-five recruiting classes in the nation, by any measure. He had a dazzling running back from Pittsburgh named Miles Sanders committed. He had a potentially dynamic pass rusher from Maryland, Shane Simmons, doubling as one of his top recruiters in the class. He had Michal Menet, a towering offensive lineman from the Reading area who has a five-star rating next to his name.
When the dust settled on signing day Wednesday, he still had all of them. He had more, in fact. He had an intriguing quarterback from Rochester named Jake Zembiec; a hard-hitting linebacker prospect in Cameron Brown; a hard-charging defensive tackle named Ellison Jordan; soft-handed tight end, Danny Dalton, whose one-handed catches in Massachusetts’ high school ranks made Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski take notice; and, of course, he had Connor McGovern, the standout center from Lake-Lehman who is good enough to be the rare starter on the offensive line from day one.
So, why are so many people so focused on what Penn State doesn’t have, what it didn’t get, what it lost somewhere between the summer and Groundhog Day?
Well, because the story around Penn State and the recruiting game the last few months seemed to be mostly about losses. It’s about LaVert Hill, one of the nation’s top cornerbacks, decommitting and winding up at rival Michigan. It’s about two long-committed defensive tackles — Karamo Dioubate and Michael Dwumfour — backing out. It’s about two highly regarded defensive prospects from Pittsburgh — safety Khaleke Hudson and cornerback Damar Hamlin — visiting Penn State, but ultimately going elsewhere. Why, safety Andrew Pryts, a longtime Penn State commit, decided to sign with Stanford instead, announcing the decision Tuesday morning.
What could have been: If the recruiting schedule was flipped, and Penn State landed potential stars like the nation’s top running back in Sanders, and Menet and Brown and Dalton and Zembiec and McGovern and Simmons in the weeks leading up to signing day instead of the months leading up to the start of the 2015 season, people would be talking about a recruiting class for the ages. As much as he’d like it to be different, though, Franklin knows the 20-member haul of 2016 has much more of a what-could-have-been feel.
“What I’d prefer to do — and I know you guys don’t want to — is focus on the progress,” Franklin said in Beaver Stadium on Wednesday afternoon. “I want to talk about the last two recruiting classes, which were clearly two of the better recruiting classes in the last five years. I know you guys don’t want to talk about that, but I’d love to talk about that. We got the No. 1 running back in the country committed to us. I’d like to talk about all the positive things going on in our program.”
Lots of positives: Talking about the positives is what Franklin does best, after all. And in this class, there are plenty of positives.
The rankings released by the four major scouting services are affected just as much by the number of recruits a team gets as the quality of those players. For instance, Penn State’s class is ranked 19th in the nation by 247sports.com. But only one team ranked ahead of Penn State — USC, at No. 11, has fewer recruits. Scout.com, meanwhile, ranks Penn State at No. 21. But the average star rating for its 20 players (3.4) is better than No. 15 Stanford (3.3) and on par with No. 13 Notre Dame and No. 7 UCLA (3.5 each) and No. 6 Michigan (3.6).
In short, there isn’t much difference between Michigan’s class and Penn State’s according to Scout, outside of the fact Michigan had the room on the roster to sign a whopping nine more prospects than Penn State.
Franklin went on.
Star power: Penn State got two five-star players — Sanders and Menet — for the first time since the legendary 2005 class that brought in Derrick Williams and Justin King and turned the program around. In the previous 10 classes, Penn State got two five-star recruits, period, according to Rivals.com. (QB Christian Hackenberg in 2013 and DE Maurice Evans in 2006).
Penn State got 10 four-star commitments, the Nittany Lions’ third-best total in the last 15 years. And, two of those three classes have come on Franklin’s watch.
Of the Nittany Lions’ 20 recruits, 16 were team captains, which should satisfy those old-school fans who want an emphasis placed on leadership and intangibles.
These recruits came from eight states, which should satisfy those who want to see Penn State take a wider reach.
Seven of the 18 high school prospects were named to an All-American team. Six won state championships. Two were Gatorade players of the year in their respective states. That should satisfy those who want the Nittany Lions to go after the very best talent.
“It is clearly obvious there is progress being made,” Franklin pleaded.
The concerns: So, why are so many so concerned about those who left?
Because that’s the way people are. This started happening the moment recruiting services began ranking players with stars. Fans know stars don’t matter. Signing day is, after all, the day that brought four-star receiver Matt Zanellato and two-star receiver Allen Robinson to Penn State. But the temptation to collect the players with the stars — the most players, with the most stars, more accurately — is a way to beat Michigan and Ohio State outside of football season.
If you aren’t winning, you’re falling behind, and when it came to guys like Hill and Hudson and Hamlin and Dioubate and Dwumfour, that’s a lot of stars — rankings, and not necessarily players — to lose in the collection.
On signing day, fans tend to care as much about what they didn’t get as what they get. That’s how a pretty good recruiting class, which has been a pretty good recruiting class for almost a year, turns into somewhat of a disappointment in the near term.
Luckily for James Franklin, signing days stick around for 24 hours, while guys like Miles Sanders last four years.