What a difference a few months can make. Before the season, recruits questioned where the Penn State program is headed. Now the Nittany Lions are landing ESPN 300 prospects while on their way to the Big Ten championship game.
With a 10-2 record, a prime-time upset of No. 2 Ohio State and an outside shot at the College Football Playoff, head coach James Franklin is finally able to show some tangible evidence to recruits that his program is headed in the right direction.
“The one thing that we needed to show is to show the high-end recruits and high-profile guys that we were going to be able to win and win at a high level,” Franklin said. “Some were able to see that and jumped on board ahead of time. They believed in the process and jumped on board, and others needed to see a little bit more evidence.”
Franklin and his staff went nearly three months without a commitment during the season. On August 13, receiver Mac Hippenhammer committed, but the next recruit didn't sign until Nov. 26, when ESPN 300 defensive tackle Fred Hansard flipped his commitment from Florida to Penn State.
A big reason for that lull: The elite recruits wanted to wait and see how the season played out. Hansard visited Penn State for its last regular-season game against Michigan State. He always had interest in Penn State and has seen enough to know that things are headed in the right direction. He wants to be a part of where this team is going.
“It really happened at the perfect time to visit, to see them compete to play to get in the Big Ten championship game. It was great to see that,” Hansard said. “I never thought they would be competing for a Big Ten championship game this early because they’re so young. It’s amazing to see what they’ve done, and I’m happy it’s happening now because I’ll be a part of something on the rise.”
Hansard isn’t the only high-profile name to take notice. He was joined on the visit by Joshua Kaindoh, the No. 16 overall player, who decommitted from Maryland after his trip to Penn State. Kaindoh hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but the writing seems to be on the wall for how this season has impacted his view of the Nittany Lions.
As Franklin mentioned, not every target needed to wait to see what would transpire. ESPN 300 quarterback Sean Clifford committed in July, before the season started, because he thought new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead would turn things around.
As one of the leaders of this class, Clifford’s commitment is paying off in other ways. He has noticed a change in the tone from other prospects considering Penn State.
“I think [the season] is a testimony to how well the coaches have done,” Clifford said. “I feel like a lot of recruits were waiting to see how Penn State would do this year, and now that they have seen how real we are, they are excited about it. A Penn State offer carries a lot of weight now.”
The turnaround couldn’t have happened at a better time for the staff, either. As the season is winding down, the coaches will have to go out on the road to finish off the class of 2017.
December and January are brutally competitive with in-home visits, decommitments, flips and down-to-the-wire decisions. All the negative questions have seemingly been cleared up by the Nittany Lions' play on the field, which is good news for the coaching staff.
“It’s one more piece of information that we have that’s positive,” Franklin said. “We have the academics, history, the tradition, we’ve got the facilities and now we have recent success that allows people to talk now. Instead of talking about what Penn State was, people are now starting to talk about what Penn State is, and that’s exciting.”