COLLINS: Penn State tries to roll with punches in changing recruiting landscape

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State coach James Franklin jokes with linebacker Jesse Luketa during the first day of spring practice on March 13. Franklin has endured some recruiting losses recently.
  • Penn State had three recruits back off on verbal commitments in the last week.
  • The losses have caused quite a bit of consternation among Penn State fans.
  • Recruits can't make their commitments official until signing day in December.

When you see some Penn State fans flocking to message boards to advocate for the firing of James Franklin, or crossing their fingers that he finally goes on to coach in the NFL just like they all know he wants to anyway, and it’s the middle of June, that can only mean one thing.

Yes, some high school football prospect they know only by his star rating, who they’ve never personally seen play and probably couldn’t identify if they saw them in the produce section at the local supermarket, must have backed out of his verbal commitment to the Nittany Lions.

Last week turned out to be a big one for the Franklin doubters and the blue-and-white doom-and-gloomers, for sure. Two players, offensive lineman Aaryn Parks and cornerback Josh Moten, took to Twitter to announce they were “re-opening” their recruitment. Another, offensive lineman Grant Toutant, outright flipped on Penn State, saying in one paragraph he was decommitting from Penn State and, in the next, that he was committing to Ohio State.

As a wise manager from a different sport was fond of saying, it’s not what you want. But, in the crazy realm of recruiting these days, it’s what you all-too-often get. It’s June. Two months away from the heart of preseason camp. Three months away from Big Ten football games kicking off. This, though, is silly season.

“Usually, this time of year would be pretty quiet,” Franklin said Wednesday, just a few minutes after Parks announced his decommitment and the day before the Nittany Lions officially lost Moten’s services. “But now, everybody is going on official visits and getting attention and love all over the country. They want to be able to do those things.”

Defending the recruits: In defense of the recruits, who wouldn’t? What people need to be constantly reminded of is, these are most often 16- and 17-year-olds in the process of making a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. They’re also in one of the most competitive, cutthroat environments they’ll ever find themselves in, gameday included.

Often, they get to a place like Penn State and are blown away by the facilities, overwhelmed by the positive attention, taken by the atmosphere and can’t picture there being a better opportunity out there. Then, some time passes. The everyday attention from fans fades away on social media. Other coaches at other big-time programs don’t stop calling, don’t stop pitching what they have to offer. And the last thing these 16- and 17-year-olds want to do is disappoint someone like that.

And so it goes.

The verbal commitment used to end the recruiting process.

Now, it just speeds it up.

Works both ways: It works both ways, too. Penn State has flipped its share of verbal commits from other programs. Even money says it will do so again, in this recruiting cycle. It’s the way of the recruiting world.

Franklin said he has a policy with recruits: If you’re not 100 percent sure about Penn State, don’t commit. Certainly, most every coach at every major football program has that same standard. But recruiting has changed so much even in the last 10 years, it’s difficult to picture some prospects being able to know the difference between a commitment and a leaning.

It’s worth wondering, with a private moment and some truth serum, if most coaches think that’s the norm at all anymore, if the early committed prospect you don’t have to worry about wavering on his word really still exists, or if this is just a race to the finish line that the early December signing day has become.

Toutant, Parks and Moten said they did what was best for them when they committed to Penn State.

They said they did what was best for them when they decommited from Penn State.

Maybe, they weren’t wrong either time.

Long way until December: The bottom line is, that’s their decision to make, and it’s not a fan’s decision to criticize. But, it’s certainly a decision Franklin and his staff have to work around. As running backs coach and recruiting ace Ja’Juan Seider said Wednesday, the only way to prevent the decommitments is to recruit “until the ink dries” on the national letter of intent.

In other words, it’s a long way until December.

“It has changed. There’s no doubt about it,” Franklin said of the recruiting landscape. “There are going to be ups and downs and different storylines that pop up. But, like always, we’re going to stay positive and work through it and grind through it and develop the players we have and recruit to create as much competition on the roster as we possibly can.”

There is no more fluid a situation in collegiate sports than there is in football recruiting. It’s Penn State this year. Other schools have had to battle the decommitment bug in recent years. It’ll be someone else next year. That’s the way it goes and the way it will be, and like it or not, the response is to find more good players. That’s the coaching staff’s job.

The fans’ job is to understand what they’ve never had to accept before, that putting too much stock into a kid’s word at this time of year will put them on an emotional roller coaster. And they don’t have to enjoy the ride.