By Mary Cunningham
No football team and coach has more riding on National Signing Day than Penn State and James Franklin.
Penn State football’s 2016 class, which ESPN ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation at several points throughout the year, has dropped — as of last night, on the eve of national signing day, the 20-person class is ranked No. 15 by ESPN.
Since Oct. 22 the Lions lost verbal pledges from six prospects and didn’t pick up a verbal commitment again until Jan. 25.
And the chorus that Franklin has been hearing for a couple of years — that he is an effective recruiter but not a great game day coach — puts added pressure on him to score big today.
With a lot of movement and changes in pledges down the stretch, the class is ranked No. 20 by Rivals, No. 14 by Scout, and No. 12 by 247Sports. The Lions’ class features six Rivals four-star prospects.
“You try not to look at it and say the sky is falling because I think not getting [McKeesport’s] Khaleke Hudson and losing [Clairton’s] Aaron Mathews really stings,” said Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Dohn. Hudson had Penn State among his finalists and picked Michigan, while Mathews flipped his verbal pledge from Penn State to Pitt Monday evening. Central Catholic defensive back Damar Hamlin picked Pitt over Penn State and Ohio State, thus adding to the Lions’ sluggish finish thus far.
“But, Penn State has done so well the last few years that people aren’t used to adversity and you have better coaches going against Penn State,” Dohn added.
Penn State’s close to the 2016 recruiting cycle has been full of drama as the Lions’ class lost six verbal pledges, including four in the last month. But Penn State remains in the mix for four coveted prospects who will select a school today, including highly touted cornerback Lavert Hill, who previously decommitted from Penn State, linebacker Brendan Ferns, receiver Dredrick Snelson and defensive end Rashad Weaver.
The Lions also underwent coaching changes this offseason, complicating the recruiting process as prospects worked to build relationships with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, a new offensive line coach and a new safeties coach.
“Has it been a challenge? Yeah … there’s no doubt about it,” James Franklin said Jan. 23 after his staff was finalized and on the recruiting trail. “But I’ll tell you what, I’m really, really proud of how our staff has handled it. I think the adversity has been a bonding thing for us in a lot of ways.”
It’s Franklin’s third recruiting class with the Nittany Lions — and his second complete recruiting cycle since taking the helm in January 2014 — and the Lions are in line to land three of the six Pennsylvania players who are ranked in the Rivals250, including Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders, who reaffirmed his commitment last month.
Exeter Township offensive lineman Michal Menet was a solid verbal pledge since announcing in May and will be a key piece as the Lions retool an offensive line that also picked up Rivals250 interior lineman and in-state product Connor McGovern, who early enrolled last month.
As much talent as the group has, there are a lot of what-ifs that could come into play in the coming years. Penn State lost verbal pledges from three defensive linemen, including Michael Dwumfour, who flipped his pledge to Michigan, and Philly’s Prep Charter High School defensive end Karamo Dioubate, a Rivals four-star prospect who decommitted from Franklin’s program in January.
Needing to address the lack of depth at defensive tackle, the class picked up a verbal pledge from three-star tackle Antonio Shelton on Sunday, held onto three-star Ellison Jordan and dipped into the junior college ranks on Tuesday, adding 6-5, 305-pounder Tyrell Chavis.
“In recruiting one-third turn out, one-third you develop and one-third don’t turn out. So it’s the one-third you develop and how you develop them that makes or breaks your program,” Dohn said. “They didn’t have a great finish, but it’s part of the building process. If it was easy then everybody would be able to do it.”