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Dominate The State

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When James Franklin took the podium for the first time as Penn State’s head coach, he spoke sharply and confidently. Franklin, who inherits a Nittany Lions roster with just eight players from Western Pennsylvania, was already recruiting.

“I know I’ve been sitting in living rooms with families and kids and selling them on a dream and selling them on our relationship,” the former Vanderbilt head coach told radio host Dan Patrick last month.

Patrick was asking about the etiquette of Franklin recruiting players to Penn State who had verbally committed to Vanderbilt. Franklin’s response played out like his introductory press conference at Beaver Stadium.

Through his pulpit and the stories that followed, Franklin sold to the public his goal of dominating the state in terms of recruiting.

Greg Pickel, who covers Penn State and recruiting for Scout.com, said kids from Pennsylvania are always going to want be Nittany Lions, but the trouble lies in one particular region of the state.

“The Philadelphia area has been very good to Penn State. Central Pennsylvania has been OK with Penn State. Obviously the issue is the West,” Pickel said. “Penn State has not really been able to get into the WPIAL. …Far and away they’ve struck out on many more western PA kids than they’ve actually connected with.”

Longtime assistant Tom Bradley was instrumental in sowing the seeds for Penn State’s glory years through his recruiting prowess in western PA, landing such standouts as Gateway’s Justin King, Upper St. Clair’s Sean Lee, Hopewell’s Paul Posluszny, McKeesport’s Brandon Short and North Hills’ Lavar Arrington.

When Bradley left the program in 2012, that fertile soil quickly turned sterile.

Former head coach Bill O’Brien and his staff were hindered by the absence of an iconic presence to carve through the region, and by the NCAA sanctions that limited scholarships, postseasons and overall appeal. The recruiting classes are palpable evidence of that strain.

Penn State has signed just one of the 12 top tier recruits in western Pennsylvania since 2011.

“The determining factor to me is just going to be how much of a relationship [the new staff] already has in place,” said Pickel.

Franklin’s first shot hit the mark and is still echoing throughout the region. He hired Terry Smith, former Penn State receiver and Gateway head coach from 2001-12, as cornerbacks coach. Smith was extremely successful at Gateway and is still a highly respected and extremely well-known presence throughout western Pennsylvania. He should battle with Pitt receivers coach Bobby Engram for the top recruis in the area. Engram, the 1994 Biletnikoff winner and Penn State’s leader in receiving yards and touchdowns, has quickly turned into Pitt’s most dynamic recruiter.

“Now it’s a matter of what kids are buying into,” Pickel said. “That’s going to go back to the Pitt-Penn State [rivalry], because [Engram and Smith] are going to be sending and representing the message that their programs are going to put out there.”

Penn StateFranklin’s message was received loud and strong at Vanderbilt, as he rebuilt a downtrodden program in Nashville the past three seasons.

“He was everywhere when he first got the job,” Roc Batten, a Tennessee high school coach who played at Vanderbilt, told Nashville's Tennessean. “You saw him getting in helicopters and going to games. I think that presence was huge and instant.”

Whether or not he has the same impact at Penn State and on the WPIAL depends more than anything on winning, Pickel said.

“Kids want to go to the NFL and kids want to go to a program they can win at,” he said. “If James Franklin can win, obviously if Penn State can send plenty of guys to the NFL. That starts to build a reputation, and at that point, recruiting becomes easier and easier.”

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