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COLLINS: James Franklin's 'dominate-the-state' plan not so much failed, as abandoned

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin.

During his introductory press conference back in January 2014, one of the first things James Franklin talked about doing as Penn State's head football coach is something that still haunts him a bit to this day.

"Dominate the state," he said of his plan to build a strong program through recruiting the very best high school talent from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

Critics like to remind Franklin, especially on days like Wednesday, that he hasn't exactly dominated Pennsylvania in the recruiting game these last few years. The top prospect in the 2021 recruiting class, Warwick High School tackle Nolan Rucci, committed to Wisconsin on Wednesday on the first day of the early National Letter of Intent signing period. In 2020, Pennsylvania's top prospect, Central Columbia receiver Julian Fleming, signed with Ohio State. In 2019, Malvern Prep linebacker Keith Maguire went to Clemson.

In fact, it has been three years now since Micah Parsons became the last top player from the commonwealth to head to State College.

Additionally, of the top six Pennsylvania players in the 2021 class, according to 247Sports, none are headed to Penn State, including three to Big Ten rival Ohio State and one to in-state rival Pitt.

Bottom line is, "Dominate the state" is not so much a failed plan as it is a quietly abandoned one, one that simply isn't as important anymore in a recruiting landscape that began to evolve long before COVID-19 necessitated it.

"You look at the number of Division I players in Pennsylvania over the last 30 years, it's changed," Franklin said. "You look at the population in the state of Pennsylvania, it's gone down. You look at the number of high school graduates in the state of Pennsylvania, it's gone down."

And so, Penn State has been trying to figure out another way to build a championship contender, and the fact of the matter is, it might not be doing so yet at the level it wants to.

Good, but not elite, class: When the Nittany Lions officially inked their 15 verbally committed players Wednesday morning, the class hardly made its usual signing day splash. Rivals.com ranked it No. 26 in the nation; if you go by the far-more-telling stars-per-player figure that measures a class' quality more than its quantity, the Lions are still a good-but-not-elite 17th in the nation.

Its best in-state player: Lonnie White Jr., the No. 10-rated Pennsylvania prospect whose future easily could be complicated if he's selected, as expected, in the early rounds of Major League Baseball's amateur draft this summer. Its best overall prospects — offensive tackle Landon Tengwall and quarterback Christian Veilleux — might be gifted enough to push for starting spots next fall, but neither has played a snap of football since the fall of 2019. Their Maryland high schools didn't play this season because of COVID-19.

Essentially, Penn State will enroll a slew of the players who signed Wednesday within a few weeks time. They don't yet know what the spring semester will look like. They don't know how spring ball is going to be organized. They don't know if there will be a spring ball. Everything is up in the air.

Which is fitting, because this particular signing day felt a bit like the end of a bygone era where recruiting your home state and your pipeline areas well is all you need to get you where you want to go.

Recruiting doesn't end on signing day: Recruiting for the fall of 2021 doesn't end on signing day. Nor is it limited to high school and junior college talent.

Andy Frank, Penn State's director of player personnel, said Wednesday that new policies are going to allow just about every program to fill gaps in their rosters by recruiting two especially fertile areas.

One is the transfer portal. The other, their own locker room.

In relatively short order, it is expected that players who enter the NCAA's transfer portal this offseason will be allowed to play in the fall of 2021, without exception. No more waivers. No more waiting a season. Basically, it's a free-agent pool.

Intriguing options: And if they can't find what they want in the portal, the NCAA's policy that allows players who were on a roster this past fall an extra season of eligibility — seniors won't count against the 85-scholarship limit in 2021 — gives a team like Penn State some intriguing options.

Let's say sophomore defensive end Jayson Oweh decides to enter the 2021 NFL Draft. Penn State can look for a fit at the position in the portal if it doesn't want to lean on any of its class of 2020 or 2021 prospects. Or, maybe, it can simply try to convince senior Shane Simmons to come back. And if Shaka Toney doesn't like his projected Draft position, perhaps they can pitch him on playing a sixth season.

In fact, Franklin said Wednesday that fans can bet on Penn State trying to be active on the portal for defensive ends and defensive backs, two positions where depth are expected to be an issue.

"We're not going to make a full-time living in terms of all of our players are going to come from the transfer portal by any stretch of the imagination," Frank said. "But we're going to be active, as in the transfer portal, looking for guys to help us fill gaps."

A few so-so classes in a row: Penn State has had a few so-so classes in a row. That's a fact, when you look at the rankings. While that means very little when it comes to how those players develop and what they'll ultimately mean, it also should be noted that a recruiting class that actually turns out to be average might not mean as much as it has in the past.

Same can be said about those old recruiting norms, in a time when Zoom conference calls have shrunk the recruiting world and made the prospect in California as close to Happy Valley as the one from Philadelphia.

Don't think that's the case? Simply look to the class of 2022, in which the Nittany Lions already have built the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation, with four-star prospects from as far away as Georgia, Wisconsin and Ohio committed.