Franklin off to surprising start in recruiting

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
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Saquon Barkley tossed off his backpack, when a stack of more than 50 letters -- several blue envelopes on top, bigger white ones below -- caught his eye on the kitchen table.

"What's this?" he asked his mother.

"The mailman hates you," she said with a laugh. "They're all from Penn State."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty Images James Franklin and Penn State were busy on national signing day and they're working to build on the recruiting successes.
Barkley, a three-star tailback in the 2015 class, committed to the Nittany Lions nearly two months ago -- and the letters arrived at Barkley's home just last week. He still hasn't gotten around to opening them all.

That thick stack of envelopes, with two rubber bands holding them together, stands as just one of the testaments to the extra work that James Franklin and his staff have put in. They've inundated commits with handwritten letters, wooed recruits with heaps of attention -- and, most important, have somehow persuaded 11 prospects in the 2015 class to pledge to the Blue and White. It's one of the biggest surprises in the recruiting world.

"Coach Franklin, he's a great guy. If he wants you and needs you on this team, he's going to get you," said Barkley, who flipped from what he labeled his dream school in Rutgers. "I'm telling you the truth. He just has face time for no reason, just to see how I'm doing or my family's doing. Even now, when I'm already committed."

This early recruiting success is unprecedented for the Nittany Lions. Since 2006, when ESPN began tracking recruiting, Penn State never boasted more than five commits before April 10 -- and never, even during a full recruiting cycle, garnered more than six ESPN 300 commits. They're already up to six such players, and with 10 months remaining.

It's not as if Franklin is focusing upon longtime Penn State fans, whose parents drive around with "409" bumper stickers. He's changing the minds of out-of-state high schoolers with confidence -- "I'm not letting you go anywhere else" -- and with an energy usually reserved for motivational speakers who have a predilection toward espresso. Two of Penn State's most recent commits would've offered blank looks or a confused stare if you told them two months ago they'd be changing their Twitter backgrounds to a Nittany Lions logo.

"I would've just said, 'No,' " offensive guard Steven Gonzalez said with a laugh. "I would've said that I most likely would've been a Buckeye."

Added linebacker Josh Barajas, a heavy Notre Dame lean: "I would've told you that you were crazy."

Barajas gave Penn State a chance when he started receiving more handwritten letters from the university than anywhere else. He then arrived to a practice that featured Franklin performing the worm and playfully spraying water in the kicker's face before a field goal. And when Barajas sat down to a lunch of cheesesteak and fries, a time normally reserved for just recruits, Franklin pulled alongside a chair and ate with his family.

Barajas didn't expect that. It was a small gesture -- but it was one no other coach had done. Bill O'Brien, whose office prominently displayed a photo of him alongside Tom Brady, often called recruits into his office to chat. He won top prospects over with his track record but induced sweaty palms and stammers. Here, Franklin's personality is putting recruits at ease -- and then winning them over.

"Sometimes you're kind of uneasy sitting around a guy that important," Barajas said, "but I was just talking to him like he was my friend. We talked about a lot of stuff, too, not just football."

Franklin landed on the Happy Valley tarmac on a wet January morning and, following his introductory news conference, joked with reporters that he needed to leave so he could get to work. He landed a 2014 commit later that night. Two weeks ago, he offered reporters a six-minute chat before leaving abruptly and saying, "As much as I love you, I love [recruits] more." He reeled in two more 2015 commits that weekend.

He's now sleeping on a mattress in his office -- seriously. And he treated signing day like Christmas, complete with several pipers piping. Several commits weren't even quite sure how to explain Franklin's success, but Franklin has an idea.

"For us, it's not work," he told ESPN.com. "It's calling around to all your buddies, it's bringing recruits up and having fun with them, showing them how much fun we have at practice. When we write letters and direct-message and do those things, it's not dry, standard material. It's us showing these kids and these parents and these high school coaches who we are as men and who we are as coaches, and having fun with it."

Franklin made a splash on Day 1 when he repeated -- twice -- that his staff planned to dominate the state and region at recruiting. So far, he has. And, so far, even some of his own commits can't quite believe it.

"I'm definitely surprised," Barajas said. "I didn't think they were going to blow up like this.

"But, then again, I don't see them stopping anytime either."

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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