The Q&A session had begun. It didn’t take long for someone from the crowd to ask James Franklin about recruiting — specifically how the Penn State football coach handles decommitments.
“Interesting that I’m getting this question in Harrisburg,” Franklin said during this past spring’s Coaches Caravan event, which tours the Northeast interacting with fans and media.
After a beat, the crowd at Penn State Harrisburg laughed. The area is home to one of the nation’s top recruits, No. 1-ranked defensive end Micah Parsons of Harrisburg High School. And he had just decommitted from the Nittany Lions after more than a year of being in the fold.
NCAA rules prohibit Franklin from mentioning Parsons — or any recruit — publicly by name until they sign a letter of intent with a school. In this case, the implication was clear.
Franklin and the Lions entered August with the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class for 2018 according to the 247Sports Composite, which factors in rankings from four major recruiting services. But Penn State’s class would be rated No. 1 if not for three decommitments along the way: Parsons, quarterback Justin Fields from Kennesaw, Ga., and offensive lineman Chris Bleich from Wyoming Valley West High School.
Fields is ranked as the No. 1 player in the nation by 247Sports.
In the aftermath, all three said they had given their non-binding verbal commitments too quickly and wanted to check out other schools.
That’s an issue for Penn State’s coaching staff, which stresses to recruits to only pledge to the Lions if they’re finished taking their visits.
“So when you tell me you’re coming,” Franklin said, “I’m gonna stand up. And we’re gonna shake hands. And we’re gonna hug. And at that point? We’re engaged. And there’s no more dating. There’s no more flirting. And then come signing day, we’re gonna get married. And once we get married, there’s no divorce. You’re stuck with me for the next 50 years.”
According to Franklin, that’s not a new approach for the program. Penn State’s surprising run to a Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl last season hasn’t led to a change in any rules for Lions recruits.
“That’s status quo for them,” said Steve Wiltfong, national recruiting director for 247Sports.
One thing that does change with Penn State’s rising stature is the level of competition to hold on to top recruits.
Parsons has taken multiple visits to Ohio State this year, and Fields is gravitating toward schools that are closer to home, such as Florida State and Georgia.
When the Lions signed Miles Sanders, rated by some services as the country’s top running back in the 2016 recruiting class, it was a nail-biter.
“You can’t ever stop recruiting them,” Penn State assistant coach Josh Gattis, who also serves as recruiting coordinator, said on signing day in February. “Those guys receive phone calls from everyone in the country. … And we’re talking about up until midnight, still receiving calls from other head coaches across the country.”
That’s all just part of recruiting, particularly for the top programs in the NCAA.
Perennial power Alabama finished with the No. 1 recruiting class for 2017, but even the Crimson Tide had nine players decommit during the process, including four ranked in the top 100 overall.
Franklin said the key to keeping that number to a minimum is to actually dissuade recruits when they first try to commit so they take some more time to consider the situation.
“We don’t ever pressure kids into committing,” Franklin said. “Because I think that’s where you (get) yourself into problems. Because maybe they’re not completely ready. So generally, when a recruit calls me or is there in person and they say, ‘Coach, I want to commit,’ I say, ‘Well, hold on a second. Hold on a second. Make sure you know what you’re saying.’
“… Sometimes guys make decisions and then other coaches are in their ear, telling them what they want to hear. I don’t do that. I tell them the truth. So just stay patient, stay positive with all these kids, because it’s not over until signing day.”