Here’s the biggest thing everybody needs to understand about James Franklin: He was brought to Penn State to recruit as much as he was to coach.
That is always seen as his strong point. Fair or not. Right or wrong.
Of course, everyone knew, he could coach the game and he could build and — as he has shown during his four-plus seasons with the Nittany Lions — rebuild a quality staff.
But when you walk into Happy Valley talking about dominating the state, that means you better do more than beat Pittsburgh and Temple on the football field, and when you strut confidently into the Big Ten East Division, you better be able to hang with Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh, too.
So, it would have been easy to expect Franklin to celebrate a bit Wednesday the fact he and his staff have so clearly hit their stride on the all-important recruiting trail.
On the traditional National Letter of Intent signing day, Penn State completed its impressive 2018 recruiting class by inking the only player it really hoped to get Wednesday: Rasheed Walker, the massive offensive tackle prospect from Maryland who every major recruiting service ranks among the top 10 offensive tackles in this class.
Penn State secured a top-five recruiting class with that commitment, and it handed Franklin his 31st signed recruit in the last two years who boasted a four-star ranking or better.
That’s 72 percent of their total recruits with four stars or better. For a program that had just 33 four- or five-star recruits in the 2011 through 2016 classes combined, that’s an astonishing number.
New assistant with Florida focus: That said, Franklin didn’t focus on it when he met with the media Wednesday afternoon. Never mentioned it, in fact.
While he spoke highly of the players who did sign and admitted that the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation filled many but not every hole on the team, the most interesting change in the program by a mile that Franklin talked about was not an incoming player. It was about a new assistant coach, and what that assistant coach could mean for Penn State recruiting in the future.
Remember new running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider’s name, because Franklin’s plan is to make it known to Nittany Lions recruits in an area where they’ve long been pining to make inroads.
“You don’t hire Ja’Juan unless you’re going to make a recruiting shift,” Franklin said. “You don’t hire Ja’Juan and not recruit Florida.”
These last few years, Penn State has been able to lure some of the best recruits in the country to Happy Valley, but guys like running back Ricky Slade, receiver Justin Shorter, defensive maven Micah Parsons and last year’s top recruit, cornerback Lamont Wade, have all pretty much come from areas the Nittany Lions have always recruited well.
Few understand the swings recruiting brings like Franklin, who has been in living rooms trying to woo prospects all over the east coast, in the south, out west and even up to Canada. Some years, the talent level in Pennsylvania and Virginia and New Jersey isn’t what it is in year’s like the last two.
But in places like Florida, it always is.
Aiming to be national recruiting force: The next step for a program like Penn State is to make itself a true, national recruiting force, and you get the sense from Franklin that he doesn’t feel the iron is getting any hotter.
Two consecutive years, his teams have finished in the top 10 in the nation. They’ve beaten Ohio State. They’ve played in back-to-back major bowl games. They’re about to have an exciting, transcendent talent selected at or near the top of the NFL Draft, the kind of guy high school football players dream to someday be like.
And now, they also have the type of coach who can do more than just go into the Sunshine State and wave politely at some of the best talent in the nation. Because Seider has shown he is a guy who can convince that talent to follow him.
Seider has strong Florida ties: Seider is a native of Belle Glade, Fla., a little north of Miami, and he has recruited the state hard for programs like Marshall and West Virginia. In fact, he played a role in helping the Mountaineers land several four-star prospects from Florida, a state that West Virginia frankly didn’t recruit as well before. That’s a big part of the reason Florida brought him in to coach the running backs there in 2017; they were sick of losing recruits to him.
Add Seider’s knowledge of the recruiting scene in Florida, the respect high school coaches have for him and the fact Penn State looks like it’s firmly on the cusp of taking the next step into perennial national prominence, and it’s clear Franklin hopes the man he brought in to replace former Nittany Lions assistant Josh Gattis can help the Nittany Lions get somewhere this staff hasn’t.
“The thing about Florida, and just about anywhere that you recruit, is having someone you can trust, someone who will do right by the kids,” Seider said. “Kids understand that, and the coaches and the mentors in the area understand, too.”
Going outside traditional footprint: Penn State has tried to ramp up its recruiting outside its footprint in the Franklin era, and it has landed them stars like Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, Blake Gillikin and Koa Farmer.
They started to make some inroads in Texas, with defensive backs Isaiah Humphries and Trent Gordon in the 2018 class, and the staff even landed a pair of four-star recruits out of Florida in defensive tackle Judge Culpepper and cornerback Jordan Miner. But to take the next step, they need the combination of a guy like Seider and a run like they’ve had recently to make a lasting impact.
Because you can get where Penn State has gotten in college football by dominating your state and controlling your backyard. You just can’t stay there for very long.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.