In the shadows of Mount Nittany there is a beast that lurks, banished into the darkness and separated from its pack. For two years it has watched quietly, surveying the landscape and plotting its next attack, aware that with just a little more patience its pack will return in stronger numbers than ever before. The Big Ten better prepare; the Penn State Nittany Lions are coming back with a hunger fueled by the promise of redemption.
With their scholarships rising back up and their bowl ban coming to an end after next season, new head coach James Franklin has been on the prowl recruiting, building a 2015 freshman class that will be at the head of the Nittany Lions’ resurgence.
The ex-Vanderbilt Commodores coach is certainly the right man to help PSU with their re-branding following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Franklin effectively put Vanderbilt on the map during his tenure at the school, landing top recruiting classes for a program that seemed doomed to spend eternity as a punching bag for the SEC heavyweights. His recruiting success was only overshadowed by his triumphs on the field, which included three bowl game appearances in three years.
Franklin’s competitors are already getting an idea of what they’re in for now that the Pennsylvania native has a major brand like PSU’s, as Penn State claims the nation’s second-ranked 2015 recruiting class (according to Rivals.com) as of the time of this writing.
With the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins joining the conference this season, recruiting Maryland and New Jersey has become more important than ever before. And that has not been lost with Franklin, who has already nabbed two commitments from each state. With the chance to play at least twice in a recruit’s home state or close by, these talent-rich states, along with Connecticut, Delaware and New York, will serve as prime poaching territory for the Nittany Lions. This isn’t to forget Pennsylvania, which Franklin has targeted as the key to protecting the school’s tradition.
In addition to a strong northeast presence, Franklin’s time spent at Vanderbilt should help turn PSU into more of a player in the football hotbeds of the south. Just as former Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer has demonstrated with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Franklin’s relationships with the area’s high school coaches gives a national program like PSU the opportunity to mix in a few players outside of its region who would normally play in the SEC. With the Big Ten always getting knocked for a lack of speed, there is no denying the advantages the coach’s ties to the south could offer.
The recruiting season is just kicking off, but Franklin’s relentlessness will only be aided by what will likely be a strong start on the field for PSU in 2014. The Nittany Lions will have a great opportunity to start the upcoming season blemish-less, with the first five games (vs. the Central Florida Knights in Ireland, vs. the Akron Zips, at Rutgers, vs. the Massachusetts Minutemen, vs. the Northwestern Wildcats) looking very winnable. A 5-0 start would be a great way for PSU to get recruits excited again, and thanks to a favorable schedule, the Nittany Lions will also get to host the conference’s best teams from 2013, the Buckeyes and the Michigan State Spartans, this season. A nine-win 2014 campaign isn’t inconceivable, either, as PSU’s 12 opponents had a combined record of 79-73 last season, which serves as the third-easiest in the Big Ten.
For now, the NCAA is able to keep Penn State at a distance. As relevant as they hope to be in 2014, at the end of the day, their roars will still be silenced. However, the rallying cries have already begun. This is one species that isn’t going extinct.