Follow the right Penn State social media accounts, and you’ll see the photograph.
On the left, decked out in his navy blue gown and mortarboard, tassel turned to the left side on the day of his graduation from Penn State stands the great former Nittany Lions quarterback Michael Robinson, his right hand shaking the left one of family friend Keith Brooks Sr.
Standing in front of both men, focused on the camera and barely tall enough to cover the second button on his father’s black coat, is Keith’s then-5-year-old son Ellis.
Perhaps that makes the assumption that will follow a bit of a stretch, because when Ellis Brooks says now that Penn State has always meant something a little different to him, the proof is in that picture. He’s no longer a little boy posing for a picture. He’s a 17-year-old linebacker, one of the best on the East Coast, clutching a scholarship offer from his dream school, and late on signing day Wednesday, he signed his name to his letter of intent and faxed it to Happy Valley and the waiting, thankful hands of head coach James Franklin.
“I think,” Franklin said, talking about that picture, “those things help.”
A big loss: This isn’t so much a signing day story about a linebacker who dreamed about going to Linebacker U. It’s a story of how Penn State got him.
In that regard, it’s not solely a story of what Penn State gained. It’s a story about how much Penn State gained after it initially lost so much.
Understand, recruiting is a fickle business. Coaches offer scholarships to players who they feel will be the best fit. Waiting on the prospects they really want can be a dangerous game, and many programs wind up simply taking the best of what they can get, as soon as they can get it. Which is why, for the past several months, Penn State’s middle linebacker of the future was not Brooks. It was another highly touted recruit from Virginia, a fast, hard-hitting player named Dylan Rivers.
There was always a lot to like about Rivers. He is big, too. He is fast. He is productive. He had big-time scholarship offers; Clemson wanted him, after all. Penn State fans, for the longest time, couldn’t wait to get him on campus, in the blue and white and ultimately, the lineup.
The only issue with Rivers is that as much as he liked Penn State, he was falling in love with another suitor. Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente and his staff didn’t slow the recruitment of Rivers down after his commitment to Penn State, and by mid-January — just a few days after an official visit to Penn State and in a decision some of Penn State’s other recruits have seemed to spend the last few weeks criticizing on social media — Rivers decided to back out of his Happy Valley plans and sign with the Hokies.
A bigger win: That’s the backstory. Here’s the theory: Penn State would never have been able to respond the way it did to losing Rivers a year ago the way it did in 2017.
Brooks is a four-star recruit. He had offers from LSU and Michigan and Notre Dame and UCLA, and Penn State made him no guarantees until after Rivers walked away — normally an eliminating factor for players that highly regarded in a day and age where recruiting cycles last, and relationships are built, over a two- to three-year span. Yet, Penn State coaches stayed in touch with him on social media and were able to get him on campus for an official visit, sway his family, sway the player and land maybe not the most highly recruited player it got in this class, but inarguably the one who plays the biggest position of need.
There are plenty of reputable people in the scouting industry who will argue the Nittany Lions somehow wound up with the better of the two prospects, as far as middle linebackers are concerned.
“It probably wasn’t as quick as people think,” Franklin said Wednesday of Brooks’ recruitment. “A lot of people say, ‘How come you didn’t keep offering guys?’ We don’t normally do that. We don’t offer a lot of players. Once we get commitments and people tell us they’re coming, why are you going to keep offering other players if you can’t take their commitment?
“We were able to get a really good person from a really good family and a really good high school coach to jump onboard with us. The big man upstairs works in mysterious ways and things happen for a reason. I hope it works out really, really well for both parties, most importantly the party that’s coming here.”
Closing strong: The point of this story is that, a year ago, Penn State looked like a program in a minor degree of disarray on signing day, losing prospects committed to it and watching others who were considering the Nittany Lions head off elsewhere instead. This year, it closed as well as any team in the nation.
Winning will do that, and Franklin admitted that while he still believes Penn State’s run to the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl in 2016 won’t start paying full dividends until next year’s class is announced, he conceded it likely had some unforeseen benefits this time around, too.
The potential to compete for championships, he said, probably put Penn State over the top for five-star cornerback Lamont Wade, the Pennsylvania player of the year out of Clairton who committed in December. It made them a player for New Jersey defensive tackle Corey Bolds, who made a surprising commitment to the university Wednesday morning. It kept highly touted cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields away from Maryland and Alabama when he committed Wednesday afternoon, and it is very likely that it at least helped Brooks keep the Penn State hope alive once Rivers’ devotion started to waver.
Days like signing day are when you see what championships can do. Because no program is ever out of the running for the prospects it really wants, as long as it can win. Penn State, a year ago, couldn’t seem to keep anybody.
This time, Penn State got exactly what it needed, and maybe even better than it wanted.