The first two questions Penn State coach James Franklin fielded during his National Signing Day news conference Wednesday afternoon were not about what the program gained but what it lost — not about the 20 recruits he added but the players who opted out of their verbal commitments along the way.
It was enough to test his patience.
“What I’d prefer to do, which I know you (media) guys don’t want to, but I’d like to focus on the progress,” Franklin said in answer to the second question. “I’d like to focus on the last two recruiting classes, which were clearly two of the better recruiting classes in the last five years. I know you don’t want to talk about that, but I would love to talk about that.”
Fair point, given the fact that the Lions’ haul was regarded by the major recruiting services as the fourth-best in the Big Ten (behind division rivals Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State), and no worse than 24th in the nation.
At the same time Franklin admitted that the circumstances facing his program this year were unlike any he has faced to date as a head coach, either in three years at Vanderbilt or his first two at PSU. The Lions saw six players decommit in the last three months, four of those in the 10 days prior to signing day. And three of them wound up at Michigan — notably kicker Quinn Nordin, who saw Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh sleep over at his Rockford, Mich., home in mid-January.
Such volatility is not unusual for the nation as a whole.
“It’s a little bit the way the industry is going,” Franklin said. “It’s really not the way we do business. We’ve been pretty fortunate over our last five years not to have a lot of drama.”
But there was plenty of that this time, and it continued right up until signing day, when safety Andrew Pryts, a safety from Hermitage, Pa. (and the son of former Lions linebacker Ed Pryts), signed a letter of intent to Stanford, after giving the Lions a verbal commitment last August.
That came in the wake of defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour (Wayne, N.J.) decommitting on Jan. 25, Nordin doing so two days after that and safety Aaron Mathews (Clairton) following suit Monday. Dwumfour also wound up signing with Michigan, and Mathews headed to Pitt with the promise of playing wide receiver.
Previous de-commits were cornerback Lavert Hill (Detroit) on Nov. 29 and defensive tackle Karamo Dioubate (Philadelphia) on Jan. 4. Hill also opted for the Wolverines and Dioubate landed at Temple.
The other bit of drama involved Shaka Toney, a defensive end/linebacker from Philadelphia. He visited Pitt the final weekend before signing day, but ultimately stuck with his verbal commitment to Penn State.
“It’s been stressful, but it is the game of college football,” said Josh Gattis, the Lions’ offensive recruiting coordinator. “You’re starting to see it more and more. At a place like Penn State maybe it didn’t happen quite as much in the past, but you’re seeing it happen at places all across the country. Recruiting never stops. A kid is never truly yours until it’s signing day and the letter of intent comes in, so you’ve got to continue to face those battles.”
“Our motto is, recruit them until the fax comes through,” defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith said. “That’s when you can take a deep breath.”
The Lions did benefit from three guys flipping. Wide receiver Dae’lun Darien, kicker Alex Barbir and defensive lineman Antonio Selton all fell their way, after previously committing to Temple, Rutgers and Illinois, respectively.
Overall, Smith stopped short of calling this recruiting cycle “difficult,” but admitted it was “a challenge.” Like Gattis he said that social media have become something of a game-changer — that the constant access and constant exposure has forced everyone to adapt.
“Social media has sped up recruiting,” Gattis said. “It’s sped it up to where kids are having access to coaches and coaches are having access to kids. You scroll through your Twitter line, and if a kid gets an offer and tweets about it, now everybody in the country knows. You see a lot of guys get what we call internet offers, where all of a sudden they tweet one offer and then they’ve got 10. Everyone sees it, and everyone throws their hat in there.”
Such a feeding frenzy is something players might or might not be equipped to handle.
“These kids are just trying to out-do each other,” Smith said. “They’re trying to be creative in how they make announcements, how they choose a school. … It’s just a sign of the times, so we just have to continue to recruit hard and have alternative plans.”
Creativity cuts both ways, of course. It’s what led Harbaugh to have his sleepover, and what led him to invite UM alums Derek Jeter and Tom Brady to the school’s signing day festivities, as well as WWE star Ric Flair.
While Franklin has certainly spiced up the process at PSU, it doesn’t appear he is prepared to push the envelope to those extremes. He did join Smith and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead on a bus ride to Pittsburgh to pick up some recruits for their official visits two weeks ago, and he invited former PSU quarterback Matt McGloin to the war room Wednesday.
“We want to be creative, not creepy,” Franklin said. “Those other things are fun, and I appreciate other people being creative and thinking outside the box, and we’re going to try to do the same thing. But like anything in life, there’s a fine line to it.”
That was music to Smith’s ears.
“Coach Franklin’s not going to let us sleep over,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t ask, because I don’t want to sleep over. I’m on the road enough. I don’t need to sleep over at a kid’s house.”