When head coach Bill O'Brien left the Nittany Lions for the NFL's Houston Texans at the turn of the year -- taking most of his staff with him -- PSU's recruiting efforts were essentially put on hold for a week and a half less than a month out from Signing Day.
Then James Franklin was hired away from Vanderbilt -- bringing most of his staff with him -- and things took off like a sprinter exploding from the blocks.
There are those who would argue that the Nittany Lions' building of the Class of 2012, which came after the Sandusky scandal broke, former coach Joe Paterno was fired (and eventually passed away) and O'Brien was hired, was even more bizarre. But there were so many big-picture, real-life issues swirling then that recruiting was hardly the primary concern of most fans.
This year was different. From the time rumors of O'Brien's pending departure surfaced, the recruiting implications were hashed and rehashed. And that pretty much continued right up until today, when most prospects in the class are slated to sign their letters of intent.
Now that it is (nearly over), here are some of the highlights and lowlights of what Penn State fans have just experienced.
BEST FLIP: It wasn't all that surprising that Franklin flipped a handful of former Vanderbilt commits. He clearly had become the face of that program and certain recruits had committed to him more than the Vandy program. But California DB/LB Koa Farmer was a different story. He had been committed to Cal since his junior year. Franklin had recruited him while still coach at Vanderbilt, and took another run at him after landing the Penn State job. It paid off, as Farmer committed during a January visit. The Lions need speed on defense, and Farmer brings it.
SECOND-BEST FLIP: A day after Farmer committed to Penn State, former Rutgers commit Saeed Blacknall flipped to the Nittany Lions. The four-star New Jersey WR joined an already strong corps of pass-catchers in this class or we would have had him as PSU's top flipper.
WORST FLIP: New York DT Thomas Holley committed to Penn State in mid-December in large part because he wanted to play for longtime Nittany Lion defensive line coach Larry Johnson. Even after O'Brien left the program, Holley seemed likely to stick with PSU provided Johnson was there. But when Johnson did not get the head coaching job -- and subsequently took the D-line job at Ohio State -- the Lions had no shot at keeping Holley. The good news for PSU fans is he landed at Florida, and not the rival Buckeyes. But he was a four-star prospect at a position of serious need. So there is no sugarcoating how difficult this flip was for Penn State.
MEH FLIP: Four-star DB Troy Vincent Jr. switched his commitment from Penn State to N.C. State about a week after Franklin was hired. Unlike Holley, this did not seem to be a real blow. Counting Farmer, who is probably underrated as a three-star prospect, the Lions landed five DBs, all of them rated as three stars or better. The interesting aspect to Vincent's flip is that he seemed to be the only PSU commit who did not get a positive vibe from Franklin. "I just thought Coach Franklin wants his guys in there," Vincent told Scout.com. "He is a great coach and a respectable man, but I wasn't one of his guys so that isn't a situation that would be good for me." Something odd was going on there. We're just not sure what.
FLIPPING OUT: Louisville DE Lloyd Tubman did so much flipping -- and near flipping -- that he might be a more effective gymnast in college. Follow along here. He originally committed to Western Kentucky in March of 2013, saying, "They're the best fit for me." A month later -- that would be April of last year -- Vanderbilt became the best fit. By June, however, he said, "I will be making some trips. I'm visiting Ohio State, Cincinnati, Kentucky and some other schools." It is not clear whether he actually made any of those trips. The day after Franklin was hired at Penn State, Tubman flipped to the Lions, saying he was canceling a previously scheduled visit to Kentucky and "I'm going to go ahead and shut (the recruiting process) down." Three days later, he announced he would visit Kentucky, Penn State and Nebraska. For whatever reason, the visit to Lincoln never happened. Tubman did check out PSU and Kentucky, and in the end made a final -- we think -- flip to the Wildcats. In the end, Tubman committed to four of the six major-college programs that offered him a scholarship.
GO EAST, YOUNG MAN: Before Farmer, who was the last California high school player to sign with Penn State? Believe it or not, you have to go all the way back to Lydell Sargeant in 2005. The difference is that the Sarge had roots in Pennsylvania, and actually played his freshman season of high school ball at Gateway in Monroeville (along with friend and future PSU teammate Justin King). The last California high school player without Keystone State roots to land at PSU was QB Zach Wasserman in 2000.
MIXED MESSAGES: In the final week of December, when rumors were running rampant that O'Brien was headed to the NFL, Holley gave him a call. What did O'Brien tell him? According to Holley (via Scout.com's Brian Dohn), the coach said, "You're gonna hear a lot of those things from other schools, saying I'm going to other teams. I'm not. I'm staying here." A day later, Holley's story changed. "I called him to ask about it," he told Scout.com. "He said he was possibly staying, but I didn't get a definitive answer." Hmm. Sure sounds like there was a second conversation between Holley and O'Brien.
MAKING A STATE-MENT: At his introductory press conference, Franklin unveiled a new phrase for Penn State recruiting: "Dominate the State." It popped up on T-shirts about six seconds later. Apparently, that will start with the Class of 2015. Of the eight prospects who joined PSU's Class of 2014 after Franklin was hired (as of this writing), exactly zero hailed from the Keystone State. All told, the class included only three players from Pennsylvania. In fairness to the new staff, it came on board very late in the game and this was not considered a particularly strong year for high school talent in Pennsylvania. There were no five-star prospects in the state and the nine four-star recruits had all committed to other schools by mid-December.
MAKING A STATE-MENT 2: This class includes prospects from 15 different states. Which state is represented the most? New Jersey with four PSU signees. That can't be good news for fledgling Big Ten member Rutgers.
NOT LOOKING AHEAD: Most members of this class would have been high school sophomores during the 2011 season, Penn State's last under Joe Paterno. But according to a former PSU assistant, the only two who were on the Lions' radar back then were New Jersey lineman Jason Cabinda and Pennsylvania lineman Noah Beh. (So that duo was actually recruited by the Paterno, O'Brien and Franklin staffs.) That just goes to show how little work Paterno's staff (in general) was putting in on high school sophomores.
SANS KAV: Speaking of Paterno's staff, one key person who remained when O'Brien took over was recruiting coordinator Bill Kavanaugh. "Kav" helped salvage the Class of 2012 and ultimately was named director of player personnel, a role in which he handled many on-campus recruiting duties. But he was not around to help with the latest coaching change. In late December, Kavanaugh was named head coach at his alma mater, Division II Bentley. Kind of makes the work Franklin and company did all the more impressive.
UNSUNG HERO: Franklin's staff did a great job of scrambling to keep this class largely intact and even build on it. But we'd be remiss if we did not mention the impact freshman QB Christian Hackenberg had on it. You think it is a coincidence that receiver is the strong point of this group? The Lions signed two four-star and two three-star pass catchers, not to mention a four-star tight end.
LOOKING AHEAD: How many scholarships will Penn State have to offer for the Class of 2015? It is too early to come up with a definitive number. But we can offer a guesstimate, based on PSU being at its full complement of 75 scholarships right now (there was one spot open as of this writing but we anticipated it being filled). According to the handy, dandy FOS SCHOLARSHIP MATRIX (pretty cool, huh?), there are 10 scholarship seniors on the team right now. So the starting number is 10. Penn State's overall scholarship limit increases from the current 75 to 80 next year. So now we are at 15. Take into account normal attrition (injuries, academic issues, transfers and such) and you can probably add about three more, bringing us to roughly 18. Then you may have a couple of 2015 fifth-year seniors who decide not to return for their final season of eligibility. So right now, we'll ballpark the overall number for next year's class at 20.