UNIVERSITY PARK — Jim Harbaugh’s star-studded signing day spectacular in Ann Arbor, Mich., was one of the most memorable moments on a day when the highly competitive Big Ten East signed some of the nation’s top talent.
The image of Derek Jeter and Tom Brady, special guests for the event, seated on a couch with the Michigan coach to their left talking about the state of the Wolverines was the talk of college football Wednesday. Harbaugh landing the No. 1 prospect in the nation — five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary, who became the first No. 1-ranked player in the nation to sign with Michigan since Rivals began its ranking system in 2002 — capped a busy day for the division.
Of course, Urban Meyer and Ohio State weren’t taking a back seat to their conference foe; the Buckeyes signed Rivals’ No. 3-ranked class in the country with 24 prospects who averaged 3.79 stars.
Michigan, Rivals’ fourth-best class behind Alabama, Florida State and the Buckeyes, signed 28 prospects, including four-star cornerback Lavert Hill, once a Penn State pledge who ultimately picked Michigan over Michigan State and Penn State. Kicker Quinn Nordin, also a former Penn State pledge and the one who had a sleepover with Harbaugh last month, signed with the Wolverines. So, too, did defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour, who decommitted from Penn State last week. Add McKeesport’s Khaleke Hudson to the Wolverines’ haul, too, a player who had Penn State among his list of finalists.
Michigan State, according to the Rivals rankings, finished with the 15th-best class.
Penn State, with Rivals’ No. 24 class, continues to face the uphill climb of competing against top programs and two of the best recruiters in the country. While coach James Franklin didn’t want to focus on the players Penn State lost to close out the 2016 recruiting cycle or why some went elsewhere, the Lions — with two new coordinators, a new safeties coach and a new offensive line coach — have to find a way to try to keep pace.
“No. 3 in the Big Ten in rankings, and we’re not going to be satisfied until we’re No. 1 in everything we do,” Franklin said Wednesday, regarding composite rankings that take into account Scout, Rivals and 247Sports. “Like I say all the time, we take pictures, I take pictures all the time with fans and people in the community, and I always throw up that No. 1, and that’s because we want to be No. 1 in graduation rates and we’re working to be No. 1 in all the other areas, as well.”
Penn State had a signing day “Signature Event” at Bryce Jordan Center Franklin’s first year, and while it wasn’t as extravagant as Harbaugh’s show, attendance dipped last year for the event after moving it to a smaller on-campus venue. Penn State opted against having one this year.
Franklin said the approach on the recruiting trail is about selling kids on finding the right fit and building relationships, adding that they want to “be creative, not creepy.”
Offensive recruiting coordinator Josh Gattis said while Penn State aims to keep the focus in house by looking at filling its needs, he added that it’s easy to see what the rest of the division is up to. It’s hard to ignore.
“All you’ve got to do is scroll Twitter,” Gattis said. “You can see anything and everything anyone is doing. We do keep tabs on what everyone is doing, but mostly we focus on us.”
Coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons, Penn State’s head-to-head record against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State is 0-6 and the Lions were outscored, 204-89, in those losses. Penn State continues working to build depth after the scholarship limitations from the NCAA sanctions, and while the coaching turnover this season impacted the 2016 class, Franklin said his staff will grow through adversity.
Only time will tell whether the Lions can grow enough to close the gap in the division.
“I couldn’t be more proud and more excited about the direction, because it’s easy to look at things when everything is going smooth and easy,” Franklin said. “It’s how do you handle adversity.
“[Offensive coordinator Joe] Moorhead talks all the time, which I think is a great quote, is the storm. At first you kind of overcome the storm, and then you become the storm, and that’s what we’re really trying to do. Overcome some of the adversity that we’ve been through and then become the storm later on.”