On Sept. 9, 2014, the NCAA lifted the sanctions imposed on Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The decision allowed the Nittany Lions to compete in the postseason for the first time since the ’11 campaign -- they beat Boston College 31-30 in overtime of the Pinstripe Bowl -- and restored the program’s full allotment of scholarships.
On Wednesday Penn State finalized its 25-member recruiting class, which features 11 four-star prospects and 14 three-star players, according to Rivals.com. It’s the next step in the team’s quest to return to its former heights and was also coach James Franklin’s first class with the benefit of a complete recruiting cycle.
SI.com talked with Franklin on National Signing Day about his incoming 2015 haul, his experience with negative recruiting and his FaceTime call with a fan.
SI: What was the biggest difference between this year's recruiting cycle and last year’s, when you had a shortened timeframe after accepting the job in January?
James Franklin: Just the time. The time to develop relationships with the high school prospects. The time to develop relationships with the parents and guidance counselor and the high school coach. That’s what it comes down to. Developing that trust and the ability to show them why Penn State makes sense for them. You really want to be recruiting these guys for two to three years. We already got four commitments for 2016. And we’re already involved with ’17 guys.
SI: Which recruiting challenges are toughest when first taking over a program?
Franklin: To be honest with you, you don’t even know the team at that point. You’re really just scrambling around trying to find the best players you can that you maybe had a preexisting relationship with or were already committed to Penn State. The last thing you want is to go out and scramble and take a guy that you don’t know very well and isn’t a great fit.
SI: Penn State had its NCAA sanctions lifted in September. How did your approach change once you knew you would have your full allotment of scholarships?
Franklin: Not a whole lot. If you look across the country, the [majority] of players were already committed. I think we had 16 guys committed to us in July. One of the problems is we had already turned down a bunch of really good players that wanted to come, but we just didn’t have space for ‘em. Then we find out later we’re gonna get scholarships back. And then you can’t go back to those guys ‘cause there are hurt feelings. It allowed us to have some scholarships at the end to try to close on some guys, which was great. But I would've rather had those scholarships around the beginning of the year so we could’ve planned for it.
SI: Did you have to deal with negative recruiting after turning guys down?
Franklin: Yeah, but that wasn’t really the factor. We dealt with negative recruiting like a lot of people do, but this year probably was worse than I had ever seen it. We battled with some guys. I thought a little bit this year crossed the line. But it didn’t have anything to do with us turning guys down early because we didn’t have enough scholarships and then getting them back.
SI: Do you know what the negative recruiting had to do with?
Franklin: Yeah. But that’s not the point. It’s not about specific things. It’s just about crossing the line. I know we’re all competitors, and we’re all aggressive. You really want to sell your guy on your program and what you have to offer. But there’s a line you don’t cross. And it’s hard. It’s hard on these guys. They’re 17, 18 years old. They’re going through this process for the first time. And you want to be aggressive and you want to be competitive, but there’s just a fine line.
SI: Most of your 2015 class comes from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey. What was the key to making Penn State the go-to choice in that area?
Franklin: We want to dominate the region and the state of Pennsylvania. If you look, when I was growing up, that’s what happened. Penn State dominated the region in recruiting and dominated on the football field. When I was growing up in this profession, they were difficult to recruit against. I’ve been places where you’re recruiting and trying to get a guy to come to your spring game or whatever it may be. They come to Penn State and there are 75,000 people at the spring game. We had the second-largest spring game in the country this year. We just gotta get guys on campus. We get guys on campus, we got a heck of a chance of getting them.
SI: One thing coaches always mention on Signing Day is finding guys who fit their program. Are there one or two qualities that stick out as what you’re targeting?
Franklin: There are so many things that go into it. There’s the physical fit. Does he have the measurables you’re looking for in the position you want to play him within your scheme? There’s the academic fit for the university to make sure this is a guy that’s gonna be able to prosper. There’s a social fit. Is he gonna be able to get along with our players and fit well into the community?
SI: If you had to characterize your 2015 class, how would you do it?
Franklin: I think we filled a lot of needs. We spread the scholarships out across almost every position. We got length and athleticism. We got a bunch of winners. It’s amazing how many of these guys are captains of their high school team. It’s amazing how many of them have won state championships. That’s important, too. We want to get guys that come from good programs and know how to work hard.
SI: We talked earlier about some challenges you faced in recruiting. On the flip side, what have been some of the best moments you’ve had in the 2015 cycle?
Franklin: Juwan Johnson was a highly, highly recruited receiver out of New Jersey. I remember sitting in my office with him and his dad. His brother [Detroit Lions defensive end George Johnson] plays in the NFL. We thought we had a really good chance of getting him. He had offers from everybody in the country. And I remember him getting emotional in my office and I didn’t know what the heck was going on. He committed and was very emotional. He was so relieved to have the process over and felt so good about Penn State, and we felt so good about him, so I got emotional. It was just a really special moment. To me, that’s what it’s all about.
SI: I heard you accidentally called a fan using FaceTime on Wednesday morning. What happened there?
Franklin: We tried to [FaceTime] Shareef Miller in Philadelphia and one of the digits was off, or reversed. And a fan ended up answering. We got lucky it was a Penn State fan. He was all excited. I thought it might’ve been Shareef’s older brother or someone I hadn’t met before. He was like, “No, coach. This isn’t Shareef. I think you’ve got the wrong number. But I’m a huge Penn State fan. Thanks for calling me.” It was really pretty cool.
SI: It’s probably too early to tell who will have a shot at early playing time. But is there one position group you feel will have a chance to contribute right away?
Franklin: We want them all to come in with the mentality they’re gonna play. Once they get here, we’ll figure that out. Either they’re physically ready or emotionally ready or mentally ready or they’re not in any of those areas, and then they’re gonna end up having to redshirt. But with our situation and our lack of depth, we need all these guys with the mentality they’re coming in to play.
SI: Some of your recruits are more highly touted than others. Which of their stories may be getting overlooked on Signing Day?
Franklin: I think Robert Windsor is an interesting story because he’s a young man from Fond du Lac, Wisc., who grew up rooting for his hometown team. He had offers from Purdue and Maryland and Wisconsin and us, and that’s not an area Penn State normally goes to. We were able to get him to come. He’s a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive tackle. He’s kind of old school. Now there aren’t too many guys that pop up their senior year. He was being recruited but really kind of exploded his senior year. That’s how recruiting used to be 15, 20 years ago. You didn’t really get involved in recruiting guys until their senior years. Those days are gone. He’s kind of a throwback from that perspective.
SI: What’s next for Penn State recruiting?
Franklin: Just keep building on what we’ve got. We already got four of the top players in the country committed to us from the 2016 class. We have to keep building depth. We have to keep building athleticism and create the most competitive environment in the country.