HEISER: Troubling trend at Penn State

Steve Heiser

In the summer, a warm breeze was blowing at James Franklin's back on the recruiting trail.

He was putting together a 2016 class that was universally regarded as one of the top 10 in the nation. Some even had it in the top five.

Now winter has arrived, however, and Franklin is getting smacked in the face by a cold headwind.

Several of his prized recruits have backed out of their verbal commitments to the Nittany Lions, and PSU's 2016 recruiting class has dropped slightly in the rankings. It's even more bothersome that two big rivals, Michigan and Pitt, have delivered the Lions some pivotal recruiting losses.

With National Letter of Intent Day on Wednesday, Franklin now has 19 verbal commitments. Depending on which service you believe, the PSU class now ranks somewhere between No. 12 and No. 20.

That's certainly not a disaster, by any means, but the downward trend is still troubling.

Franklin admitted in a recent news conference that the Lions have been the targets of negative recruiting. Other teams are telling potential players that Penn State is a program in turmoil. The Lions lost their last four games last season, and since the regular season ended, there's been a ton of turnover on the PSU coaching staff and player roster.

Controversy: Penn State did pick up a few recruits this week, but none were rated as blue-chippers, and one of them arrived with a little controversy attached.

Monday, the Lions picked up a commitment from three-star wideout Dae’lun Darien, after the 6-foot, 4-inch, 205-pound Baltimore product made the last-minute decision to flip from Temple.

That apparently did not make at least one Temple assistant very happy.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a screen shot of a Tweet that appeared to be sent by Temple receivers coach Fris Jackson that ripped PSU for its own negative recruiting.

The Tweet read: “You’re suppose (sic) to be ‘Power 5’ but you have to negative recruit us to get a recruit, what a joke!!’”

The Tweet has since been been deleted.

Landing big lineman: On Sunday, PSU also landed 6-3, 280-pound Antonio Shelton, a three-star defensive tackle from Westerville, Ohio, who decommitted from Illinois. And on Tuesday, another three-star defensive lineman, 6-5, 305-pound Tyrell Chavis of Nassau Community College, selected the Lions over Auburn. A few years back, Chavius and ex-PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg were teammates at Fork Union Academy in Virginia. The junior college player has two years of eligibility remaining.

Shelton and Chavius are two big additions at a position of considerable need.

Not all good news: The news this week was not all good, however. Monday night, Clairton athlete Aaron Mathews flipped his verbal commitment to Pitt as a wide receiver. Mathews had committed to PSU as a safety. His statement on Twitter implied the position change was a factor in his decision.

Then things got worse when Pittsburgh Central Catholic athlete Damar Hamlin also committed to Pitt. The four-star prospect, who was ranked the No. 3 player in Pennsylvania by 247Sports, picked the Panthers over the Lions and Ohio State.

That followed quickly after some key recent recruiting losses to Michigan and Coach Jim Harbaugh.

There are also rumblings that a couple of other PSU verbal commitments (Hickory safety Andrew Pryts and Imhotep Charter end/linebacker Shaka Toney) might be waffling on their decisions, which could make for an uncertain signing day in Happy Valley.

Franklin will go into spin mode: Add it all up, and a Penn State recruiting class that was once drawing nearly unanimous acclaim has slipped some. At best, PSU has only the third-best class in the Big Ten East Division, trailing behind Ohio State and Michigan, and about even with Michigan State.

No matter what surprises occur Wednesday, that's unlikely to change.

Franklin, as always, will go into full-blown salesman mode and put the best spin possible on his class during his annual recruiting celebration on Wednesday.

But no sales pitch will hide the fact that the heady dreams of summer have been interrupted by the harsh realities of winter.

Penn State head coach James Franklin has had an eventful recruiting season.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.