When James Franklin was hired as Penn State's head football coach in January of 2014, arguably the biggest takeaway from his introductory press conference was a vow to "dominate the state." It became a rallying cry for Nittany Lion fans as the program continued to put the pieces back together from a rather tumultuous two-plus years.
In just about four weeks, Franklin put together a recruiting class that would finish No. 24 in the nation. Incidentally, you may be familiar with some of the names from that class. Trace McSorley, Chris Godwin, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, and Mike Gesicki are just a few of the players from the Class of 2014 that have more than made their mark in Happy Valley. A year later, the 2015 class came in at No. 14, headlined by Saquon Barkley. You need to go back more than a decade to 2004 and 2005 for consecutive classes ranked at that level.
The last two years have seen 20th and 15th ranked classes. That four year run is arguably the best RUN in the history of recruiting rankings for PENN STATE
Now, albeit with over five months until players may sign early, James Franklin and his staff has put together a group of 20 prospects that currently sits No. 3 in the 247Sports rankings. If this current group of verbal commitments would have signed in February of 2017, it would rank No. 9 nationally. That does not even take into account a number of highly ranked players that are seriously considering the Nittany Lions.
There was a phrase that many a Penn State fan tossed around over the previous decade or more: "sleeping giant". The general thought was, of course, that the football program had everything needed in place to consistently run with the elite programs in the country both on the field, and on the recruiting trail.
While we all enjoyed years like 2005 and 2008, the sad reality in hindsight is those were essentially one year blips. Where programs like Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, Florida State, and others were almost annually among the favorites to win conference and national titles, the Nittany Lions were a once every few years revelation at best.
What is happening now, in my very humble opinion, is the awakening of that proverbial giant. Penn State is putting together a recruiting class befitting a Big Ten champion, and, much more importantly, it is doing so on the heels of other highly regarded groups.
The "stars don't matter" debate will inevitably roll on in perpetuity, but the fact is that teams that play for and win conference and national titles consistently are the teams that recruit the most blue-chip players. What this Penn State staff has done is not only bring the roster depth back to appropriate levels, but stock every level of the roster with talent. As far as I am concerned, this is not only the deepest Nittany Lion program in more than a decade, but by far the most talented top to bottom.
And here is the best part, it only gets better. Six recruits in five days was fun, but you only need look a couple hundred miles west to see what the next level looks like. Urban Meyer has capitalized on his three career national titles, and the very obvious pipeline to the NFL through his program, to pluck the top players out of the top states, all over the country. Is Penn State there yet? Of course not, but it does not take much imagination to see the gap steadily closing.
James Franklin and his staff are no longer selling ONLY a vision.
The Lions' run to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth in 2016 was a surprise to all but the most optimistic of fans. About 10 months ago, I wrote that Penn State was entering it's most important season in more than a decade. The successes (or failures) of last season would reverberate through the program for years to come.
As the 2017 class came to a close, there was a small sense of disappointment amongst fans that the 11-3 season was not having a bigger impact on the ranking of the class. First of all, that group still finished No. 15 in the country. Secondly, everyone from James Franklin to myself stressed patience, and the returns would start coming down the road. Welcome to down the road.
James Franklin and his staff are no longer selling only a vision. All of the talk about big things to come has panned out, and Penn State is fast becoming one of the biggest programs in the nation amongst high school prospects. The Lions routinely turn up in top-5 lists for players that have yet to even visit Happy Valley, and are talked about by some of the best players in the land.
As much fun as we have had since last Friday with the run of verbal commitments, we have still yet to truly see what this program can ultimately become.