PITTSBURGH — When “dominate the state” became the notable catchphrase from James Franklin’s first press conference as Penn State football coach, an obvious area where the Nittany Lions needed to improve recruiting efforts was Western Pennsylvania.
Franklin’s staff has done some impressive work to make good on that promise, including reversing a trend of top players in Western Pennsylvania ending up at schools not located in State College.
With the Penn State Coaches Caravan making a stop Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Franklin and assistant coach Terry Smith had a chance to mingle with Nittany Lions fans and assess recruiting efforts here.
“We were on some guys that first year, but we got the job so late, it was a scramble,” Franklin said. “We’ve been committed since we got here to do a great job with our state, in our footprint. Obviously Western PA historically, and I would even say the last couple years, has been really strong.
“We’re doing a great job there. Obviously for certain kids and certain families, Pitt is a really good option as well. For us to go where we want to go, we feel like we have to keep all of the best players in this region home. When I say home, to me that’s Penn State. That’s the land grant university. That’s the state school.”
Building new pipelines
Most coaches don’t put much stock in recruiting rankings, but landing Woodland Hills star Miles Sanders in the 2016 recruiting class was a huge victory for Franklin. Sanders was a 5-star prospect and the No. 1 running back in America, and he was the first top prospect from Pittsburgh to pick Penn State since 2010.
Other top alums from Woodland Hills who went on to play in the NFL — players such as Steve Breaston, Ryan Mundy and Darrin Walls — spurned Penn State for Michigan or Notre Dame. But Sanders is the heir apparent to Saquon Barkley and could become the Nittany Lions’ featured back in 2018.
Penn State landed two of the top three players from the Pittsburgh area in the 2017 recruiting class — cornerback Lamont Wade from Clairton and offensive lineman C.J. Thorpe from Central Catholic.
While Penn State has previously welcomed elite players from Central Catholic to State College, the pledge from Wade was another important win. Clairton has been one of the top talent-producing schools in Western Pennsylvania in the last decade, and Pitt had dominated at the school.
“When you can get players from a certain area or certain high school, it helps,” Franklin said. “There’s a familiarity there. That kid and those parents can speak about the school on your behalf. We had a kid the year before that we didn’t get from the same exact high school. I don’t know if that was really a factor, given that we got the kid the next year.”
Penn State had a player from Clairton, Aaron Matthews, committed to join the Nittany Lions in the Class of 2016. Franklin’s staff wanted the 3-star prospect as a defensive back. Pitt swooped in late and offered him the chance to play his preferred position, wide receiver, so he flipped to the Panthers.
Shortly after Franklin took the job at Penn State, tight end Nick Bowers from Kittanning flipped from Pitt to Penn State in the 2014 recruiting class. Franklin’s staff also tried to flip Tre Tipton, who decided to stick with Pitt and could be an impact player at wide receiver for the Panthers in 2017.
While Temple has improved recently, Penn State does not have a definable rival on the eastern side of the state. Whether it is Temple, Rutgers or Maryland — all schools that recruit the Philadelphia area — Penn State is going to win the majority of those recruiting battles.
Pitt is a bigger threat, which makes the western side of the state more of a challenge. Ohio State also is nearby, and Notre Dame has long looked to Western Pennsylvania as a key region in its national recruiting footprint.
That’s why Pittsburgh and the surrounding area is so important for Penn State. The past couple of recruiting cycles, plus the presence of Terry Smith — an ace recruiter and former high school coach in the area — are reasons to believe the Nittany Lions’ success on the recruiting trail here will continue.
Recent victories such as signing Sanders, Wade and Thorpe also could be part of future success stories.
“It does help,” Franklin said. “There are high school coaches that you have a relationship with that you’ve signed their players before and treated them well. There’s people in the community, little brothers like we talked about. All of those things help, because at the end of the day it is about relationships.”