Penn State's Franklin Full of Hope

The Nittany Lions' Signing Day event was all about hype. But the program's new head coach has a realistic view of the future.

Penn State rookie football coach James Franklin, fully channeling his inner infomercial host, was seated at midcourt of the Bryce Jordan Center on Wednesday night, introducing his first recruiting class.

He talked about guys with great hips. Tremendous hips, even. He talked about guys coming from great families and great high school programs located in great parts of our great nation. And everybody clapped along, for the crowd of roughly 2,500 had heard comforting words like this before.

Not in a setting quite like this one, of course. This extravaganza, labeled “The Signature Event,” is a sure sign that the reset button has been hit in Happy Valley.

But it was National Signing Day. Superlatives are expected and encouraged, no matter the source.

Anyway, there was a lull after Franklin narrated the highlight package of one young Adonis (not his real name), which was shown on the arena's video screens. And former Nittany Lions linebacker LaVar Arrington rushed to fill the void.

Arrington had been enlisted as emcee, because of course there was an emcee. (Also on hand were the Blue Band, the cheerleaders, the twirlers, the dance team, the flag squad, some singers and a tap dancer. Yes, a tap dancer.)

Arrington had one question for the crowd: “Are you guys as impressed as I am?”

Everybody clapped. Everybody but the players on the current squad, who were seated at one end of the floor.

Because they know.

They know better than to believe the hype, hype that they once heard about themselves. They know just how great the distance is from high school ball to the major college ranks. How much work goes in, and how often luck comes into play (especially when it comes to health). Weights must be lifted. Systems must be learned. Adjustments must be made.

And positions must be earned.

Franklin knows that himself, and admitted as much at a news conference earlier in the day.

“There's a few (players) every year, whether they're in high school, college or the NFL, they just show up and they're better than people, but not very often,” he said. “Usually it's the guy that's going to be most competitive and is going to work hard to get back to where he wants to be.”

So Franklin, like any coach, is dealing in a futures market. He only made it sound like it involves livestock.

“I'm a big features guy,” he said. “I like to recruit guys with massive heads, big hands, long arms and big feet, because that shows growth potential.”

Certainly, though, there are no guarantees of immediate success. One needs only to look at Penn State's 2013 class -- the last wooed by the departed Bill O'Brien and his staff -- to understand that. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg started immediately, and might very well become the best to ever man his position at the school.

But he was the only recruit to make a big splash. Wide receiver Richy Anderson played a little, tight end Adam Breneman and linebacker Brandon Bell improved as the season progressed and offensive tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to start this fall.

And that was it.

So Franklin will again bank on potential, and hope that this class works as hard as he and his staff have since their arrival some three weeks ago. They cemented most of the key commitments O'Brien and Co. secured, with the notable exception of defensive tackle Tommy Holley, who flipped to Florida.

And in assembling a 25-man class (including five early enrollees, who count against last year's haul), they poached five guys who had given verbal commitments to Vanderbilt, Franklin's previous stop, as well as one from Rutgers and one from Cal.

They brought in some playmakers to array around Hackenberg -- a must, given the departure of Allen Robinson, the standout wideout. Also some young offensive linemen who presumably have the massive domes Franklin was seeking. That was another need, since there are only two scholarship tackles on the current roster. The Lions also appear to have their quarterback of the future in Michael O'Connor, and some promising young defensive backs (notably Koa Farmer, the Cal expatriate).

But they need more defenders, and more defensive linemen in particular. Or perhaps you've forgotten the manner in which Ohio State manhandled PSU last October.

As Franklin said, “We have holes in the roster, and we're not going to fill all our needs … in one year. It's going to take a couple years, probably, 'til we get through these limitations.”

At least they have hope. And if they're lucky, that will outlast the hype.


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