PSU’s Strong Class Full of Philly Flavor

Dominant effort in Delaware Valley was a key as the Lions landed one of the nation’s best groups.

If nothing else, signing day showed that James Franklin's oft-repeated dominate-the-state mantra was far more than just idle chit-chat.

Notebook in hand, Penn State's head coach was happy to point out to reporters during a news conference that seven of Pennsylvania's top 10 recruits were part of the Nittany Lions' 25-man recruiting class. That the Lions hadn't brought in any top-10 guys in 2014, only one the year before and a total of four over the last four cycles.

“We want to build a fence around the state of Pennsylvania,” Josh Gattis (shown with Franklin above), the wide receivers coach and offensive recruiting coordinator, said.

Really though, they are trying to move the fence farther out than that.

“We feel in a six-hour radius, we can get any kid,” said Gattis, who was honored as the Big Ten Recruiter of the Year by

The target within the target is Franklin's old stomping grounds -- the Delaware Valley, roughly defined as Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. No fewer than eight of the recruits hail from that region -- offensive lineman Ryan Bates and linebacker Jake Cooper, from Archbishop Wood in suburban Philadelphia; linebacker Many Bowen, from Barnegat, N.J.; defensive end Ryan Buchholz from Great Valley High School; wide receiver Irv Charles from Haddonfield, N.J.; wide receiver Juwan Johnson from Glassboro, N.J.; defensive end Shareef Miller from Philadelphia's George Washington High School; and cornerback John Reid, from St. Joseph's Prep in the same city.

Franklin, a native of Langhorne, Pa., happily narrated all the newcomers' highlight packages during a reception for fans in Rec Hall late on signing day, exulting when Cooper splattered some hapless running back (“I love this play.”) or Johnson hauled in a deep ball (“It's really not fair.”) and wondering at the drive of Reid, whose off-field goal is to be part of PSU's honors college. (“He's a unique guy -- really driven, really focused.”)

Franklin and Co. were unable to zero in on their prize recruiting territory last year, because the new head coach was hired less than a month before signing day. He had to make do with those recruits secured by the previous staff, headed by Bill O'Brien, and augment his haul with some of the players he and his assistants had wooed while at Vanderbilt, their previous stop.

It wasn't a bad class, and a handful of its members assumed prominent roles last fall. But given a full year to recruit, Franklin & Co. narrowed their focus, with telling results. This year's 25-man class was ranked second in the Big Ten (behind Ohio State) by, and 13th in the country. Its average star rating was 3.52, which was the same as the Buckeyes' group (which included two more players).

Recruiting, Franklin likes to say, is all about relationships, and he maintains many in and around the Delaware Valley. When he visits a local high school, he said, “You're not really working. You're not really recruiting. You're driving around to see all your buddies.”

That helps him build bridges, helps him build trust.

And ultimately, it helps him build a team.

His task was aided in that regard last fall, when the scholarship restrictions placed upon the program by the NCAA as a result of the Sandusky scandal were eased. Once more Franklin could bring in 25 recruits, same as everybody else. Once more he could have at his disposal a full roster of 85 scholarship players (though he said he will probably fall a few short this season).

He and his assistants had begun to hone in on the Delaware Valley months before they knew any of that. Bates, who with Cooper was part of two straight state-championship teams at Wood, was among the first to verbally commit to this year's class, last Feb. 15 -- not long after signing day.

Buchholz gave his verbal on Feb. 24, the same day as Cooper. Johnson came aboard in March, and by the end of that month the class already consisted of 10 guys.

Momentum was clearly gathering.

“In this day and age in recruiting, your kids are your No. 1 selling point -- not only on your team, but the kids who are already committed,” said Gattis, whose recruiting turf includes the Philadelphia region. “These kids develop relationships early on with each other that we couldn't just build. They were reaching out to each other. One thing you notice in recruiting -- great players want to play with great players.”

Bowen, Charles and Reid committed in consecutive months over the summer, and Miller rounded out the Delaware Valley contingent on Jan. 25.

There was also a humorous signing-day story that involved Miller, if only peripherally.

Franklin attempted to call Miller after he faxed in his letter of intent, but accidentally dialed a man by the name of Aleem Medley, who happens to be a Penn State fan.

“He's never been to a game,” Franklin said Wednesday night, “but we're going to invite him to a game.”

No telling how much he (or anyone else) will see of the local contingent, but on signing day, hope sprang eternal.

Franklin noted that Charles and Johnson are tall, rangy receivers. Gattis said Miller is “a difference-maker” as a pass rusher, that Reid is “an elite corner and a lockdown corner” and that Bates looms as “a mauler” along the offensive front. While the coaches said he has the versatility to play anywhere on the line, his first look will be at center.

Another assistant, secondary coach and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith, reserved the headiest praise for Bowen, a smallish outside linebacker (at 6-0, 206) who is apparently swift enough to play in coverage but physical enough to stuff the run.

“He's that guy we don't have on the roster now,” said Smith, who surely knows that this fall the Lions will return both starting outside linebackers from a defense that was the strength of the team in 2014.

All that remains to be seen before PSU opens its season on Sept. 5 against Temple, in Lincoln Financial Field. What is certain is that the Lions have found their footing in their chosen recruiting territory. And that the Delaware Valley is very much a part of that.

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