James Franklin isn’t one to mince words. At his introductory press conference, he threw down the gauntlet at Big Ten coaches – most especially Urban Meyer. Four months later, Franklin’s delivered on his vow to out-recruit the competition.
Some scoffed at his boisterous declaration, but the Penn State head coach targeted the Northeast and let fire a bold strategy. It’s resulted in verbal commitments from Brandon Wimbush, Sterling Jenkins and Steven Gonzalez. All three were recruited by Ohio State.
“Our recruiting philosophy, we’re going to dominate the state,” Franklin said in January. “We’re going to dominate the region.”
Wimbush and Gonzalez hail from New Jersey and Jenkins is from Pittsburgh. Together, the trio makes up part of the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to Rivals.com, trailing only Alabama. That, of course, is subject to change – it is only May.
The Buckeyes’ two-man class, which could be wilted to one pending the outcome of Eric Glover-Williams’ troubles, is ranked 56th, behind Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa, Western Michigan, Louisiana Tech, Texas-San Antonio, Florida Atlantic, Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois.
Yes, that is correct.
But recruiting classes aren’t finalized in the spring, calming masses of Ohio State fans who’ve experienced episodes of panic in recent weeks. Still, Franklin and Penn State should be taken serious. This is a guy who not only turned Vanderbilt into a winner, but attracted major recruits to the SEC’s only private institution.
Wimbush, a highly touted quarterback, was one of the Buckeyes’ most sought after targets for the class of 2015. Jenkins and Gonzalez, four-star offensive linemen, could have provided depth in an area lacking bodies. Instead, the Buckeyes get none of the three, while a divisional rival attempts to close the talent gap.
In the past two recruiting cycles, Ohio State had 13 commitments in May 2012 and seven in May 2013. Both classes already included at least one five-star. The class of 2014 looked to be more of the same in February with three players secured. But safety Ben Edwards flipped to Auburn and Glover-Williams’ status is in jeopardy.
When Ohio State beat Penn State 63-14 last October, it acted as a seismic shift in one of the Big Ten’s marquee series. Less than a year later, though, it appears the Nittany Lions have once again steadied their turbulent ride. Franklin’s four-month tenure could already be deemed a rags to riches story.
“I feel like they’re going to come in and dominate the Big Ten.”– Brandon Wimbush on Penn State
His arrival coincided with Year 3 of unprecedented sanctions. Now is the time where Penn State’s depth could reach the point of no return. But Franklin is making sure the cupboard is always overflowing. Of Penn State’s 16 commitments, 10 are four-stars. One could describe those as Meyer-esque numbers.
Those aren’t the only ones. Franklin’s paycheck at Penn State is more than $4 million annually. Penn State paid Vanderbilt a $1.5 million buyout just to hire him. Without coaching a game, Franklin is already among the biggest names in the Big Ten. He might be the closest thing to Urban Meyer in the country – confidence verging on cocky and charisma.
Franklin, like Meyer, is a rock star among his fan base. On Penn State’s caravan trips, he’s bombarded with handshakes, autograph requests and flashbulbs.
“All of these things are part of the job,” Franklin said, “so why not embrace them and enjoy them and have fun with it? I’ve always been interested in people and getting to know their story and what makes them tick and why. We all have a story.”
Top-five recruiting classes are second nature for Meyer. February is just another harvest. In the Midwest there’s corn, soybeans and football players. A Hatfields and McCoys sequel could surface if Meyer and Franklin continue a recruiting turf war.
In a speech last week to boosters, Franklin said he considers Maryland and New Jersey in-state in terms of recruiting. He went one step further, saying other schools in the region “might as well shut down because they don't have a chance."
All but one of Penn State’s current commitments is from the East Coast.
When Meyer was hired at Ohio State, he burst onto the scene in the Big Ten with a similar brashness to him, albeit with national championships in his back pocket. Franklin has yet to win 10 games in a season. Meyer plucked four players away from the Nittany Lions that first recruiting cycle – Noah Spence, Armani Reeves, Cam Williams and Joey O’Connor – setting in motion a lingering disdain from the peeved citizens in Happy Valley.
A 2-0 record, 49-point margin and the flipping of Larry Johnson only inflamed a simmering relationship between the two programs. Now Penn State is attempting to turn the tide, and it’s coming up successful thus far. Factor in that the Nittany Lions return to 80 scholarships in 2015 and the full 85 in 2016 and the picture of a crumbling Beaver Stadium becomes sturdier.
Ohio State’s golden ticket resides with quarterback Torrance Gibson and running back Damian Harris. If the Buckeyes receive commitments from the duo, they’ll have one of the top recruiting classes in the country. And it would set in motion a Wimbush-Gibson rivalry that could wow the college football world for years to com.
Said Wimbush: “The energy right now that [Penn State] has around the program, I feel like they’re going to come in and dominate the Big Ten.”
James Franklin already is.