Consistent national championship contention is an incredibly difficult goal for any college football program to accomplish. Penn State, which flirted with playoff inclusion in each of the last two seasons, encounters a common challenge this year.
In the aftermath of abundant key departures — including an all-time all-purpose playmaker, three productive linebackers, record-setting performers at receiver and tight end, and the entire starting defensive secondary — Nittany Lions coach James Franklin faces the task of attempting to reload without skipping a stride.
Penn State finished last season ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press Top 25, following a No. 7 finish in 2016. For the first time since 2008-09 — and for only the third time in 30 years — the Nittany Lions concluded back-to-back campaigns considered one of college football’s eight-best teams.
Franklin and his staff followed this feat by securing Penn State’s finest National Signing Day result, a top-5 overall recruiting class in the 247Sports composite rankings for 2018. This 23-player collection includes 12 prospects considered top-10 talents at their respective position, and six signees already are on campus for spring practice.
Micah Parsons, fighting for reps at middle linebacker, became the highest-rated Franklin signee ever in December. The remaining 17 signees who arrive in May and June feature fellow 5-star recruits Justin Shorter and Ricky Slade, who are listed No. 1 nationally among receivers and all-purpose backs, respectively.
Regardless of their prowess as prospects, each of these newcomers can expect contested positional battles in any attempt to earn playing time this season. Last year, only three of Penn State’s 21 scholarship freshmen saw action. They didn’t log a single combined start.
It’s a different reality from what members of Franklin’s first Nittany Lions recruiting class encountered in 2014, when the roster was recovering from scholarship restrictions. Many in that group were forced to learn on the fly, occasionally taking their lumps during consecutive seven-win seasons before claiming a Big Ten championship in 2016.
Franklin opened spring practice last week by stating his mission is to develop the “most competitive environment in all of college football.”
That’s a mantra that annually echoes through football facilities in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Columbus, Ohio, and Clemson, S.C.,where the Crimson Tide, Buckeyes and Tigers have combined for nine College Football Playoff appearances and four national championships through four installments of the modern postseason structure.
Alabama lost four first-round NFL draft picks last spring, then claimed the fifth national title of Nick Saban’s tenure nine months later. Clemson said goodbye to legendary quarterback Deshaun Watson after he engineered a championship-winning comeback vs. those Crimson Tide, but bounced back to secure another ACC title and a third-straight playoff appearance last season.
Ohio State never has lost more than twice in a season through Urban Meyer’s six years on campus. The Buckeyes recovered from the subtraction of five first-round NFL draft picks in 2016 to win 11 games, and previously prevailed in the inaugural College Football Playoff while relying on third-string quarterback Cardale Jones.
Lulls in recruiting success could have resulted in “down years” for each squad. The ability to reload on National Signing Day enables the avoidance of a dreaded rebuild.
During the past five recruiting cycles (2014-18), the average class ranking finishes for Alabama (first), Ohio State (fourth) and Clemson (12th) indicate a consistent flow of incoming talent.
During this same span, which dates back to Franklin’s arrival, Penn State has proven to be a steady riser on the national recruiting trail. The Nittany Lions’ average Signing Day finish since 2014 is 16th, reaching a new high mark this winter, and coaches can now comfortably point to tangible results — such as a conference championship ring and prized NFL draft prospects — in conjunction with a collective vision for the future.
This puts Penn State in an enviable spot when it’s time to replace key starters. The Nittany Lions’ outlook on roster building ideally facilitates a level of long-term competitiveness and accountability that has come to define recent eras at schools such as Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
“You hope to have a veteran player that’s a big-time player, all-conference, All-American type player, with an exciting player maturing and growing behind him and learning,” Franklin explained. “And then a guy behind him that you’re excited about but just isn’t ready yet.
“We really haven’t been at a position where we’ve had that since we’ve been here. I think we are getting to that point now and I think that once this freshman class arrives, we’ll have that at most positions.”
It’s important to note that the on-campus culture Penn State has created meshes well with recruiting endeavors. The Nittany Lions signed multiple blue-chip talents at middle linebacker, receiver, tackle and tight end this winter. Those athletes know full well the competition that lies ahead, not only among each other but with the many redshirt freshmen and program veterans aiming to make their own moves up this depth chart.
“We’re going to challenge each other to become the best group of receivers in the country,” signee Daniel George told Land of 10 earlier this month while discussing five fellow Penn State receivers who will enter the 2018 season with four years of collegiate eligibility.
Similar sentiments, such as “iron sharpens iron,” are repeatedly expressed by outgoing Penn State players and interested high school standouts alike when reviewing the Nittany Lions’ future at positions across the field, ranging from quarterback to kicker. These are necessary individual attitudes that contribute toward the team-wide mindset of a perennial championship contender, becoming especially crucial any time the program marches forward following the exit of elite talent.
“I think being behind really good players and being able to study them and grow and be challenged by them is really important,” Franklin said. “No different than going and recruiting the next guy to come in and push them from behind.”
If Penn State continues to replenish its roster with impressive waves of young, ambitious prospects, positive results should surface atop an increasingly talent-laden depth chart every year.