James Franklin and Penn State laying a foundation for the future with 2015 recruiting
BALTIMORE -- A few days before Penn State notched another recruiting triumph, quarterback Brandon Wimbush and offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins exchanged direct messages on Twitter. The two sought-after prospects in the class of 2015 were close to making their college decisions, and both were strongly considering the Nittany Lions. Wimbush asked Jenkins which school he was favoring. Jenkins said Penn State.
Wimbush, who received a scholarship offer from Alabama only days earlier, had a similar mindset. The players coordinated the timing of their announcements, and both verbally pledged to the Nittany Lions on May 6.
First-year Penn State coach James Franklin has sparked a recruiting surge since coming over from Vanderbilt in mid-January, and the Nittany Lions’ 2015 class currently includes 16 members and ranks third in the nation, according to Rivals.com. Yet the move by Wimbush and Jenkins stands alone. On one day, Franklin may have secured his offensive foundation for years to come.
A blue-chip product out of Jersey City, N.J., Wimbush can do a little bit of everything. He passed for 1,472 yards with 15 touchdowns and rushed for 578 yards with seven scores last fall while leading St. Peter’s (N.J.) Prep to a 10-2 record and a berth in the state Non-Public Group 4 championship game. He received Quarterback MVP honors at two recruiting camps in New Jersey and earned an invitation to the prestigious Elite 11 finals in Beaverton, Ore., this July.
Wimbush’s arm strength is his most impressive attribute -- he casually fired 40-yard darts into the wind at the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge in M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore earlier this month -- but he has grown into a more complete quarterback. Over the last few years, he has refined his mechanics, gained a more thorough of understanding of how to read defenses and developed better touch on short and intermediate throws. While rising sophomore Christian Hackenberg is entrenched as Penn State’s starter in 2014, Wimbush has all the tools to be his successor.
“I think, more than anything else, [Wimbush] has really worked on his throwing motion, his technique, his footwork, the mental approach to the game,” said Rich Hansen, Wimbush’s head coach at St. Peter’s Prep. “And I think he’s just done a phenomenal job of becoming a quarterback who happens to be a great athlete as opposed to a great athlete playing the quarterback position.”
Jenkins’ commitment is hugely significant, too. The Pittsburgh native towers at 6-foot-9 and 308 pounds, making him one of the most physically imposing prospects in this year’s class. He also addresses an immediate area of need. When guard Miles Dieffenbach went down with a serious knee injury in March, Penn State lost one of two returning offensive linemen with starting experience. Looking ahead to 2015, a roster still depleted from sanctions handed down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal will need all the reinforcements it can get.
At his introductory press conference in January, Franklin talked about dominating the state and region in recruiting. He stressed winning battles for players within the six-hour radius around State College. Members of his staff -- several of whom have ties to the region -- were even assigned specific territories to target.
The composition of Penn State’s 2015 class to date shows Franklin’s plan taking shape. The Nittany Lions have already landed six prospects from Pennsylvania, four from New Jersey and three from Maryland. “Recruiting is about relationships and you’re always going to be able to do a better job regionally, because you’re going to be able to develop a relationship with those kids,” Franklin said in a phone interview with SI.com on Friday. “You’re going to be able to get to know them better, they’re going to be able to get to know you better, they’re going to be able to get on campus multiple times and things like that.”
Franklin’s philosophy also has another bonus: It makes life tougher for both of Penn State’s newest conference rivals.
“The two schools that will be affected the most here are Maryland and Rutgers,” said Mike Farrell, Rivals.com’s national recruiting director. “They’re both moving to the Big Ten. They’re in states that have a lot of talent. Traditionally, they’ve done an OK job keeping some kids there. But a lot of the big-name kids have left. And now you’ve got Penn State with a great recruiter, an energetic coach who has done it on the football field and proven what he can do in the SEC and Vanderbilt, which everybody thought was a no-win situation for him.”
Wimbush and Jenkins highlight the type of talent Franklin has already attracted, but his staff still faces plenty of challenges. Grant Newsome, a prized offensive tackle from Lawrenceville, N.J., picked Michigan over the Nittany Lions last week. Four-star linebacker Josh Barajas from Merrillville, Ind., flipped from Penn State to Notre Dame on May 3. Franklin has taken to dissuading prospects from giving verbal commitments until they are certain about their decisions. “If you want to commit to us, then you’re done with the process,” Franklin said. “And if you want to keep going through the process and looking around and seeing people, I’m fine with that. But don’t commit.”
If the early returns are any indication, it’s clear that Penn State’s pitch is resonating with elite high school players. That was the case with Wimbush, Jenkins, wide receiver Juwan Johnson and defensive end Adam McLean, among others. At the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge, Jenkins took a moment to reflect on the recruiting process. He described former Nittany Lions and current Houston Texans headman Bill O’Brien’s approach -- he was “more of a laid-back type of … I’ll show-you-my-resumé type guy,” Jenkins said -- before talking about his future coach and what has helped him appeal to top recruits. “Franklin was just in your face in every aspect of what he does,” Jenkins said. “[He is] just real energetic -- and in a very good way.”