Winning puts Penn State in position for record recruiting class

Penn State's recruiting revival seems to have followed the most basic of formulas: cause and effect.

Cause: 22 wins in the past two seasons, including a Big Ten championship, a Fiesta Bowl title, and victories over the league's top teams and recruiting heavyweights.

Effect: a 2018 class ranked No. 5 in ESPN's rankings, which, if it holds, would be Penn State's most decorated class since ESPN started rating them in 2006.

Winning bolsters recruiting. That's nothing new. Penn State had to show it could win big in the post-Jerry Sandusky scandal era. Yet because of what happened in 2011 and 2012, Penn State is a program in which no stride or slide can be ascribed to one factor. Not even winning.

It took stability and time, a modernized approach to recruiting and marketing, more exciting schemes and the visibility of a national superstar in Saquon Barkley for Penn State to build its class. And work. Penn State coach James Franklin estimates the school began recruiting 80 percent of the incoming class when they were freshmen or sophomores, before the winning really started.

While Penn State's pull for a portion of recruits never fully went away, the coaches had to convince elite-level prospects and families that they could thrive in the program, without limits.

"My first couple of years, we were still answering a lot of questions that no program in the country was having to answer, some questions most coaches weren't having to talk about," Franklin told ESPN.com. "That isn't really happening anymore. Penn State has become one of those hot schools again. Whether it's a kid in California, Texas, Florida or our region, we're going to be hard [for other programs] to deal with."

Other than the time to build connections with recruits, Penn State's most important recruiting initiative was one that still affects the entire program: modernization. Since his arrival in January 2014, Franklin has tried to balance celebrating Penn State's history and traditions while still moving the program forward in areas like recruiting.

The Nittany Lions needed to appeal differently to the current prospect, whether through social media or direct communication. That part came easily, according to Andy Frank, Penn State's director of player personnel, who said the staff's "youthful energy" helped build bonds with recruits.

"They're just down-to-earth coaches," said Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) High School coach Calvin Everett, who had two players sign in Penn State's class, including its top-rated recruit, defensive lineman Micah Parsons. "You could tell they're genuine. A lot of times, the kids can get a sense for things like that. That's extremely important, and that's what's helping them."

But Penn State needed more resources in the recruiting realm. At times, it would need to look to other regions, a departure from the end of the Joe Paterno era, when the team signed players almost exclusively from bordering states. Facilities and the program's branding had to become showier.

"We ... didn't stay up to date and relevant with what we needed to do to keep the program progressing year in and year out," Franklin said. "We pressed the pause button on those things for 15 years. No one else did. As you're trying to catch up, no one's pressing their pause button, waiting for you to catch back up. The financial investment, the emotional investment, the sweat equity you put in -- it's not easy."

The staff first saw progress locally and regionally, within Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, or "foundation states," as Penn State cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Terry Smith calls them. Two of the nation's top 10 players came from the region -- Parsons and wide receiver Justin Shorter (Monmouth Junction, New Jersey) -- and headline the 2018 class. Penn State signed the top two New Jersey players and four of the top seven Pennsylvania prospects.

Franklin also signed the two highest-rated in-state players in 2016 -- running back Miles Sanders and guard Michal Menet -- and two of the top four in 2015 and 2017.

"When you say Penn State, people's eyes get big," Everett said. "If not the players, it's their families. One way or another, they have some Penn State connections."

The in-state recruit who had the largest contribution to PSU's current success wasn't the most decorated. Barkley came in ranked by ESPN as the No. 6 recruit in Pennsylvania (behind three other Penn State recruits) and 291st nationally.

But Barkley's record-setting career as a running back and kick returner, and his knack for highlight plays, including a 79-yard touchdown against USC in an epic Rose Bowl, enhanced the program's appeal to top recruits. Franklin says he thinks almost every high school freshman, sophomore and junior recruit saw Barkley's run in Pasadena.

"Even before we were having a ton of success, people recognized him as a player," Frank said. "Just like our success grew, his success grew."

The offense in which Barkley flourished also became a selling point. Although Penn State had several great offenses under Paterno, the scheme often leaned conservative. Franklin's predecessor, Bill O'Brien, ushered in change with his New England Patriots-style offense, and things really took off under coordinator Joe Moorhead, whose big-play passing game excited recruits and their families.

In the past two seasons, only four FBS teams have had more plays of 20 yards or longer than the Lions (176).

The recruiting class rating improved from No. 24 weeks after Franklin was hired -- the first group blended Franklin recruits and O'Brien's but contributed greatly to the team's recent success -- to three consecutive top-20 classes in 2015, 2016 and 2017. They were strong hauls, especially for a program emerging from NCAA scholarship penalties, but Penn State couldn't lure several elite regional prospects.

New Jersey natives Minkah Fitzpatrick and Rashan Gary went to Alabama and Michigan, respectively. Pennsylvania prospect D'Andre Swift picked Georgia. Other than defensive end Shane Simmons, Penn State missed on many of the top players from Maryland.

Once the big wins arrived on the field, starting with an upset of Ohio State in October 2016, Penn State started winning more top recruiting battles. "We're typically recruiting against the same four schools," Franklin said, and while he declined to name them, Ohio State and Michigan are two. By beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten in 2016, and falling by only a point to the Buckeyes and routing Michigan in 2017, Penn State has shown it can stack up.

PSU isn't landing every top target -- quarterback Justin Fields, ESPN's top-ranked prospect in the 2018 class, committed to Penn State before decommitting in June and signing with Georgia -- but its average is going up.

"The other thing that starts to happen is we have more options now," Franklin said. "Maybe there were 10 kids we were recruiting like that in the past. Now there's 40."

Smith thinks back to high-profile recruits like Fitzpatrick, who considered Penn State before signing with Alabama, and said, "It would have been still a challenge, but I would like our odds greater today." Smith, who spent part of last week recruiting in Atlanta, has seen an even more dramatic response in the South, where recruits had little interest in Penn State before it won the Big Ten.

Winning has driven PSU's uptick, mainly because it combatted the negative recruiting the program faced after the scandal broke. Franklin notes that his initial comments about negative recruiting were misinterpreted; he knows it exists everywhere, but other schools were using Penn State's post-scandal challenges against the program. "That line was being crossed," he said.

In finalizing the 2018 class, Penn State faces less denigration, and even less of it affects recruits.

"I don't see how effective it would be," Frank said. "If I'm a kid or a family and they're trying to sell that line to me, I don't think you look at our program and say it makes any sense. It doesn't ring true."

Added Franklin: "We're just back to the normal negative recruiting that everybody deals with."

That could be the best sign for Penn State, which now must maintain its recruiting push. Penn State and Ohio State are competing for Rasheed Walker, an ESPN 300 tackle out of Maryland. There are other battles brewing for 2018 and 2019 prospects.

Franklin also is dealing with his first significant staffing turnover. Moorhead left to become Mississippi State's head coach, and offensive assistants Josh Gattis and Charles Huff, both strong recruiters, also departed for SEC jobs.

The staff changes make the recruiting formula a bit more complex, but Penn State, primed to sign its best class in recent memory, is operating from a strong, stable position.

"You fight like hell to become a top-25 program and it's really hard, and when you get into the top 25, you fight like hell move into the top 15," Franklin said. "The reality is, the gap between the top five teams or top six teams and 20 through 25 is dramatic. So we've done a great job of finishing in the top 10 the last two years, but we've got a lot of work to do."