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When 'Banzai' text arrives, Penn State coaches drop everything to greet football recruits

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Penn State coach James Franklin jokes with linebacker Jesse Luketa during the first day of spring practice on Wednesday, March 13. Franklin has 20 verbal commitments for the 2020 recruiting class, but he says the class may only be two-thirds full. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)
  • "Banzai" has become a key code word for Penn State football recruiting.
  • When PSU coaches receive a "Banzai" text, they drop everything to greet recruits.
  • The summer recruiting season resumes Thursday for one more seven-day stretch.

Sean Spencer, Penn State’s defensive line coach, was laboring on the treadmill once when the “Banzai” text arrived.

At that point, Penn State’s coaching staff knows to drop everything else and get ready to greet a recruit.

So Spencer, drenched in sweat, left the gym for the football building lobby, where more than a dozen coaches and staff members gathered to build a reception line for a prospect and his parents. They do this every time a recruit visits.

And they’ll do it again this weekend, no matter where (or how sweaty) they are. Recruits, get ready for the “Banzai.”

“We want to give the kids a great experience when they come here,” Spencer said. “Part of that is showing them who we are. We’re a very energetic staff. We’re not going to just go, ‘Hey, how are you doing?' We’re going to hug everybody up like he was my cousin in Johnstown.”

Recruiting resumes Thursday: The summer recruiting season resumes Thursday for one more hectic, seven-day stretch, curiously known as a “quiet period.” That means players can visit coaches on their college campuses until July 31, making this an important recruiting stretch before the season begins. And programs are taking advantage.

Penn State will host a camp for underclassmen Friday, along with numerous prospects on official and unofficial visits. That likely will lead to more pledges to Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class, which currently has 20 commitments.

According to head coach James Franklin, the class might be only two-thirds full. At the Big Ten media days, Franklin said that he expects to sign “30 or more” players in the class. Though the NCAA limits recruiting classes to 25 signees, or “initial counters,” programs can bring in more by counting the scholarships of some early enrollees to the previous class.

With space available, Penn State has plenty of recruiting left before December. That means a lot of “Banzai” this weekend.

It began as a code word among the Penn State staff for whenever a recruit was inbound to the football offices. When coach Franklin sends the text, staff members leave film rooms, workouts and coffee stops to meet recruits. They schedule days around these moments.

Coaches and recruiting staff members gather in the football building lobby, or in safety Jonathan Sutherland’s case at the Nittany Lion Inn, for a group greeting that includes a lot of hugging. Parker Washington, a 2020 prospect from Texas, met such a reception in June, when he visited Penn State. Washington committed July 2.

“It’s important because the people, the players, are the lifeblood of the program,” said Terry Smith, Penn State’s cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator. "If we don’t have good talent, Penn State won’t be Penn State, and the university won’t be the university. Because, let’s face it, when we won the Big Ten [in 2016], donations were at an all-time high.

"Winning has a correlation to the success of the university, and we all know the success starts and ends with our players."

Moment can be overwhelming: For the players, the moment can be overwhelming, with so many staff members waiting for them at the door. But it also differentiates Penn State from other programs. At least it did for Sutherland and his family, who were greeted at the Nittany Lion Inn.

“Not all schools necessarily do that, and it was really surprising,” said Sutherland, a redshirt sophomore. “I remember all the coaches having conversations with my family, and it felt like a really special introduction to being in the family."

That’s the goal. Ja’Juan Seider, Penn State’s running backs coach, said he was skeptical of the “Banzai" greetings when he joined the staff in 2018. Some kids like the attention, others don’t, and Seider said to himself, “I can’t be doing that all the time.”

Now, he sees the impact such first impressions can make.

“I like it because it gets our staff right in front of the kids and the parents and also gets coach Franklin as a head coach right in front of the parents and kids from the get-go,” Seider said. “A lot of times, when you’re recruiting these kids, the head coach might not get around them until the end. Well, they’re tired by that point. We’re right in front of them from the beginning. It makes a big difference."

It did for defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, a sophomore who met the full “Banzai” greeting at Penn State’s football building. That moment still resonates with his family.

“A lot of programs do the bells and whistles,” Mustipher said. “That’s what they’ve got to do. That’s their job, to impress recruits, because they’ve got to get the recruits. But the coaches waiting for me, opening the door for my family and talking to me, I felt that family vibe, that family environment. And nothing changed when I got here.”