Franklin’s recruiting nothing short of amazing

James Franklin’s recruiting success in his first year at Penn State is nothing less than stunning.  I thought he was on solid ground in saying he wants to get as much Pa. talent as possible and hiring former Penn State player and former WPIAL head coach Terry Smith would really help in that area.

But, Smith’s 2015 early commitment class is ranked #1 nationally by a couple of scouting services, a spot Penn State apparently hasn’t occupied for a couple of decades.  That is really something.

I attribute this to a few reasons.  One has to be Franklin and his staff.  The guy took a down and out program at Vanderbilt and made it a winner in a very tough conference.  He brought much of his staff along, and his hires, as noted above, look good.  The opportunity to play right away may be better at Penn State than at many other top tier programs for the next few years due to the roster depletion caused by the NCAA scholarship sanctions.  And, Penn State is still a very attractive place to go to school, and to play football, for many of the nation’s top high schoolers.

This final reason may be particularly galling to Mark Emmert and his NCAA cronies.  They seemed to want to kill the Nittany Lions’ program due to the crimes of one former coach, and the alleged cover up of a handful of administrators, and possibly, the former head coach.  A Commonwealth Court judge rightly said a couple of weeks ago this is an area where the NCAA has no jurisdiction and no business sticking its nose.

This organization is under seige from current and former athletes.  They are tired of watching this behemoth reap hundreds of millions of dollars from their hard work every year, and then keep making money from the athletes’ likenesses ever after they are through playing.  Money these athletes can have none of.  All the while the organization keeps making more rules that often make no sense.

What delicious irony if PSU were to compete for and even win a national title in the next four or five years, a time when the NCAA obviously intended the program to be struggling merely to compete with second division teams.

At the same time the NCAA itself, perhaps, is fighting to keep its own head above water.

It will indeed be interesting to see where both PSU and the NCAA are in 2018.

 

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New division offers rivalries, tougher schedule

James Franklin winds up his first spring practice this week with the Blue-White game Saturday.  Then we spend four and a half months waiting for kickoff.

This season, with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten will have new divisions with much better names–east and west.  Hey, just about anything was better than legends and leaders.  These divisions I believe will also offer better rivalries but also tougher schedules for the Nittany Lions.

As anyone who has followed my blogs here and Penn State reports on WOYK over the past decade knows, I never felt Penn State developed solid rivalries in the Big Ten.  The other schools, coaches, and ADs initially didn’t want Penn State, and the league felt compelled to contrive a season-ending rivalry with Michigan State for that much coveted Land Grant Trophy.  What, you forgot about that?

Well, it never caught on, and so the Lions muddled through with the changing schedule necessitated by the 11-team league until Nebraska made it 12 a few years back.  Now, there is a potential natural rival, given the two teams’ histories in the 80s and 90s.  I think the league should set up Nebraska and Penn State as an annual out of division contest.  We’ll see.

PSU will now have traditional powers Michigan and Ohio State–with whom Penn State has the best rivalry in the league–along with Michigan State, Indiana, and newcomers Rutgers and Maryland in its division, to play each season.  Maryland and Rutgers, two teams Penn State played annually for many years, are welcome additions and schools with which Penn State can and should develop good rivalries.  The days of Lion dominance may be over in these series, too. 

Ohio State continues as a circled date, and Michigan will add an extra annual challenge and marqee matchup.  When Wisconsin and Nebraska show up on the schedule from the other division, that will be a power packed lineup. 

It all could mean a return to something at least approaching the long standing rivalries with Pitt, West Virginia, and Syracuse that went away when Penn State joined the Big Ten 23 years ago.  This should add to the excitement and aid Franklin’s already impressive recruiting.

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Lions secondary uncertain

Penn State’s last line of defense, the secondary, is up in the air as spring practice continues.

Not a particularly strong area last season, the defensive backfield does not appear to be a strength for 2014, either.  At least not when looking at the veterans on the squad.

PSU returns corner Jordan Lucas, who came on during the year in 2013, and may end up being pretty good.  If he can be the number one cornerback, that’s a good start.  Adrian Amos is a serviceable safety, and Ryan Keiser looks to have the inside track on the other safety spot.  Neither, though, is much more than adequate.

Trevor Williams and Jesse Della Valle have experience, though neither was able to hold a spot consistently.  Other than that, a number of sophomores and true freshmen will compete, and perhaps one or two will emerge.

With teams throwing more, cover guys take on increased importance to a defense.  A so-so D backfield can be compensated for to a degree by a good front seven.  Unfortunately, Penn State’s upfront guys on defense appear to be far from dominating this year as well.  Not a promising combination.

As much as any other issue, as with the linebackers, the defensive backs do not have good speed.  There were times last year when opposing backs and receivers simply outran Lion defenders.  Both backers and D backs were on occasion in position to make a play, but just didn’t posses the speed to do it.  That problem has not been solved.

Maybe the competition in the fall will lead to someone, or a couple of someones, stepping forward.  If not, the defensive backfield will be one more reason Penn State’s offense will need to put together long drives and score touchdowns for the Lions to contend in the Big Ten in 2014.

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PSU brand doing fine

While former Penn State officials charged in the Jerry Sandusky scandal sputter toward their eventual day in court, and once-promising but increasingly shrill and self-serving reform the trustees groups careen toward irrelevancy on social media, one thing seems clear:  overall, Penn State is doing just fine, thank you.

The recruiting success of first Bill O’Brien and now James Franklin, highlighted by his 2015 class so far being rated in the top five nationally,  shows top gridiron athletes still want to don the blue and white.  These young people seem to understand the value of both a Penn State education and playing football for Penn State.  It is implicit in this understanding these athletes, and their parents I would surmise to a large degree, realize the horrible crimes were committed by one man, and perhaps covered up (innocent until proven guilty in America, remember) by a few others. 

These recruits and their families, increasingly hailing from around the country, seem to believe there is much good about the Penn State experience.  They must see the academic and citizenship standards set and maintained by Joe Paterno as reasons to attend, or support their son’s attending, this university and playing for this team.  It does not appear these standards have changed much in the past three years, and here’s hoping they don’t to get a little more talent.

These non-Penn Staters must also see many positives in the university beyond the football program.  The good academic reputation–it’s good, not great.  The picturesque campus, small town atmosphere.  The quality of students and professors.  None of which had anything to do with the scandal, but have perhaps showed courage in bearing up under the white hot media spotlight, and unfair guilt by association.

It is this sentiment that is being expressed in increasing frequency and volume by current students.  They aren’t forgetting what happened, and many want to see the school restore some place of respect for Joe Paterno, considering all he did for the institution, the town, and the state over six decades.  Not to absolve him of anything he did or didn’t do that might have lessened the scandal, but to recognize his overall impact.

But they are tired of so many alumni, or at least the vocal ones in these groups that formed to try and change the way the board of trustees operates, of continuing to focus on keeping alive the events of 2011.  Count me in the group that wants to see more changes, though this was my attitude long before the Sandusky affair.  But many current students, along I sense with many faculty, alumni, and university supporters, are ready to get on with the Penn State of the future.  Fix what can be fixed about the trustees, see justice done as much as possible, but put this sorry chapter in its proper context.

It seems many football recruits have already figured out how to do this.

 

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WR position may challenge Franklin

No one, save maybe Matt McGloin, flourished more under Bill O’Brien that wide receiver Allen Robinson.  The 2013 All-American and two-time All Big Ten player is heading to the NFL, leaving perhaps the biggest void by position that new head coach James Franklin must face.

Second leading receiver Brandon Felder is also gone, leaving sophomores Eugene Lewis and Richie Anderson as the only wideouts on the roster who have caught a pass.  Lewis has shown flashes, such as his two-touchdown effort in the season-ending upset of Wisconsin, and Anderson appears to have some potential, too.

Two redshirt freshmen and three promising recruits will eventually fill out the fall depth chart.  And New Jersey star Juwan Johnson,  who won’t be coming until 2015, already has people excited.  But that’s not going to help this season.

O’Brien brought his noted use of tight ends from New England, and the Lions have three top guys at that spot.  They may use one or more of them split out at times, and good receiving tight ends can do wonders for mediocre wide receiving corps.

Still, at this point, PSU’s wide receivers for 2014 are a big question mark.  Lewis will be watched this spring to see if he can consistently provide some ability to stretch the field, and eyes will be on Anderson and the three redshirts to see if any will step up to grab the number two spot. 

Given the tight end and running back situation, the Lions realistically only need two decent receivers this year.  As long as at least one is a deep threat and both can get open often enough to keep defenses honest, Christian Hackenberg, the three tight ends, and three running backs should be able to carry things while the 2014 recruits learn the ropes to provide depth.

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