How Penn State became a recruiting juggernaut again

Penn State head coach James Franklin
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire

It has only been 51/2 years since the criminal indictment of Jerry Sandusky and subsequent sexual abuse scandal rocked Penn State from top to bottom.

Since then, the Nittany Lions football program has gone through two coaching changes — including the firing and death of Joe Paterno — and been hit with incredible NCAA sanctions including the loss of dozens of scholarships and a four-year postseason ban. Those penalties were eventually partly revoked, but there was no revoking the bad PR, intense debates over Paterno’s role and legacy and the hit the once-proud program took to its reputation.

Anyone who says they thought by spring 2017, Penn State would be the reigning Big Ten champion and closing in on one of the top recruiting classes in the nation … well you should perhaps question their honesty.

So how did coach James Franklin and his staff do it? It was only last year the Nittany Lions again had a full allotment of 85 scholarships. Now Penn State has the nation’s No. 2 or No. 3 recruiting class for 2018, depending on your preference for Rivals or 247Sports rankings.

No matter how one feels about Penn State, it’s remarkable — unbelievable, really — that Happy Valley has so quickly regained status as a destination for top recruits.

Winning certainly helps, and it’s no coincidence that after winning the Big Ten and playing in the Rose Bowl last season, Penn State is popular with current high school juniors. For kids that age, 2011 seems an eternity ago, and in the meantime PSU has reestablished itself as a place to win big and move on to the NFL.

No, capitalizing on a great season with what could wind up Penn State’s highest rated recruiting class ever isn’t the shocking part. It’s that the Nittany Lions are at this point behind consistent top 25 classes since Franklin arrived four years ago.

Penn State has always had some kind of appeal. Previous coach Bill O’Brien landed a few top prospects, such as current New York Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg, even when the situation at PSU was at its most toxic.

But Franklin has taken it to another level, both on the field and in recruiting, approaching heights of even Paterno’s best years.

He did it by taking an unapologetic approach as soon as he arrived, but not in the way that led to many in the Penn State community facing accusations of tone deafness and lack of sympathy toward Sandusky’s victims.

Franklin ruffled some feathers when he essentially declared Penn State would once again own the Mid-Atlantic region. But he has backed up the boasts by protecting the borders of Pennsylvania and hauling in many of the top prospects from neighboring states such as Maryland and New Jersey and even establishing a pipeline into Virginia.

Hiring and retaining a dynamite staff certainly hasn’t hurt either. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and wide receivers coach Josh Gattis in particular are among the most highly regarded assistants in the sport and other programs likely will soon come calling with job offers.

But for now, the staff is intact and every is humming along in Happy Valley, even if that was nearly impossible to imagine just a few years ago.


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