Talking Terps: Assessing the real impact of James Franklin at Penn State

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Pete and FlaTerp exchange e-mails again, this time about James Franklin at Penn State.

Pete: So James Franklin. Penn State. Thoughts?

It's strange at first, for me, because I actually feel like Maryland has a football rival now with the conference move. Virginia never was that (nor was Tech), and now there's a near-Duke-basketball-ish (couching that as much as possible) figure in football in Penn State. They're a program with more history that's near the Terps' recruiting area and probably will end up considering Maryland as a secondary rival.
Now that rival goes ahead and hires a former Maryland assistant, with all the ties to the region that comes with that. It's pretty scary, for sure, but I can't help but feel excited -- maybe it's just my bad news fix kicking up again.

FlaTerp: I don't like these "rivalries" in which the other team and its fan base doesn't respect the Terps as true rivals. One of the true lowlights of my college career was sitting through the last Penn State football game in 1993 (yeah, I'm old), which happened to be a 70-7 loss. The mood in Byrd was basically apathy, and Penn State didn't see it as a big win either. It improved Penn State's record vs. Maryland to 35-1-1. Add all those things up and you're just not looking at a rivalry. As a result, I'm unmoved by this whole James Franklin hire and its Maryland ramifications. When Franklin gets to Penn State, he's going to be worried about Penn State, not Maryland. They already take pretty much whatever recruits they want out of the Terps' backyard and even off of Maryland's commitment list.

Maryland needs to worry about recruiting better, coaching better, developing players better, and most importantly, winning football games. If the program can accomplish even half that stuff, maybe then we'll arrive at a point where the Terps can start trying to compete with Penn State. Until that day comes, the Nittany Lions can hire whoever they want.

Pete: 2014 ain't 1993. The conference change will make it different, especially as it pertains to the recruiting battle. I'm tellin' ya, Maryland-Penn State is the one that makes the most sense (outside of Maryland-Rutgers), and whether or not we're tired of a Duke-style rivalry, it's coming fast.

I do have a problem with the argument of "Penn State already grabs all of the recruits that they want!" The fact of the matter is, they don't. Jesse Aniebonam, for one. Derwin Gray, for another. While Penn State has historically grabbed a whole ton of recruits from Maryland, the Terps do convince some of the guys the Nittany Lions pursue to instead stay home. My fear is, with Franklin, those guys are going to go to Penn State as well.

I'm never going to disagree with the fact that Maryland has to worry about Maryland first, but I think it's naive to say that the fortunes of other teams Maryland is competing with does not have an impact on the Terps. Penn State hiring someone like Franklin, who (I think) will turn the program back around and will recruit at an even higher level -- that's going to make things harder for Randy Edsall and Maryland. No matter what the situation, Maryland has to step up and meet it, but that doesn't mean that there can't be different situations that are more or less difficult.

FlaTerp: First of all, this Penn State gig is not a "turn around" like Vanderbilt, where Franklin went 6-6 in his first year, 2-6 in the SEC, and lost a bowl game to finish 6-7. It was a heroic performance at Vandy because Vandy was a doormat. If Franklin goes 6-6 at Penn State next year, he'll be answering some uncomfortable questions when it's over.

The fact of the matter is, Bill O'Brien did a phenomenal job keeping PSU together under as much adversity as any coach, anywhere, has ever faced. He led PSU to a 7-5 season (4-4 conference) including a pair of wins over ranked teams, and since then he has a top-20 recruiting class for 2014 secured -- all while the team is crushed by scholarship limits and not even bowl eligible. So Franklin has a much, much higher bar to hit. Vandy definitely got better under Franklin, but still only evolved into a mid-pack (at best) SEC team by his third season. He's entering an exponentially bigger arena now and he's replacing an exponentially better coach than Robbie Caldwell, the one-year Vandy coach who went 2-10 before Franklin got there. To some degree, I'd say the book is still out on him -- with all due respect to the fine job he did at Vandy.

Second, sure, Aniebonam and Gray are great examples of kids who chose to stay home, but do you really want to go down that road? Shall we start digging deeper into Maryland vs. Penn State recruiting battles, name by name, to find out who traditionally wins? In 2013, at the rock-bottom lowest point in program history, O'Brien's Penn State program still pulled 5-star Christian Hackenberg and three other 4-stars -- and only one of those four kids was even from Pennsylvania. They've got a big recruiting footprint and if you give Franklin a choice, I promise you he'd rather pull Ohio kids away from Urban Meyer than Maryland kids away from the Terps.

PSU is also terrific at protecting its own backyard -- Pa. is a very fertile state -- and that dynamic is not going to change. There will be 10 or more kids in every Penn State class who are from Pennsylvania. After that, sure, they can come after DMV kids but they have a strong interest in Ohio and New Jersey too and I doubt they want to ease up in those places. When they chase after DMV elite 4-star+ recruits, they can get in line with everyone else in that pool. The Terps lost the Kouandjios and Cyrus Jones to Alabama, Goldman and Darby to FSU, Tabor and Jelani Jenkins to Florida, Fuller and Keihn to Virginia Tech -- and yes, too many others others to count to Penn State and West Virginia through the years. Things were already tough for Maryland. I'm just not convinced James Franklin makes them any tougher.

Pete: I very much agree with your point there -- the book is still out on him, but Vanderbilt isn't a job that really allows for the kind of success you're looking for in just a three-year turn around. What he did there was nothing short of phenomenal, but it definitely does not necessarily equate the level of high excellence expected at Penn State.

Whether or not Penn State has outrecruited Maryland is not the issue. The issue is whether they'll do it at an even higher rate -- or even, at the same rate, as Maryland's plan is still very much to try and lock down the area with Mike Locksley (even if it hasn't worked quite yet). Sure, the name brand of Penn State alone goes a very long way to drawing recruits, but having someone like Franklin -- an adept recruiter with ties to the region -- can only make things worse.

And I do agree with the Pennsylvania/Ohio point, as Franklin made a very large point in his press conference in saying they were going to lock down the state. But he also said dominate the region, and while he'll have to compete with the Alabamas and Florida States of the world for the five-stars, my fear is for the four-stars that the Terps have been able to pull over the past few seasons.

FlaTerp: Some Maryland kids grow up Maryland fans, and those are the ones most likely to stay home, regardless of how many stars are next to their name. You mentioned Derwin Gray, well, the kid just loves Maryland. Maybe if the Terps had a likeable head coach, there would be more kids like that coming up the ranks. Oh wait, this is a Franklin discussion, not an Edsall one. Sorry, got distracted.

Anyway, there does seem to be a wide range of opinions on Franklin's tenure at Maryland. I'm not too proud to admit it: I didn't want any part of James Franklin as the Terps' head coach when it became clear Friedgen's time was up. I also happen to know that a vast majority of Maryland fans felt the same way as me. Most of us saw shaky play-calling and a pile of misses on elite local recruits. Franklin definitely proved my camp wrong at Vandy with both his results and recruiting, and he'll have a chance to soar to even greater heights at Penn State. I have to give you credit, Pete, you were part of the minority that was right about Franklin and saw this success coming. So, remind me, what went wrong? Why isn't James Franklin Maryland's coach?

Pete: Ha, well thanks, I'd rather take credit for predicting a right decision Maryland made rather than a wrong one, but here we are. In terms of what went wrong? It's impossible to know the specifics of it, despite the theories you hear tossed around. What's for sure is this -- Maryland elected not to honor the head coach-in-waiting agreement, and instead chose to treat Franklin like any other candidate (which, while I was of the group that thought they should have just stuck with Franklin, isn't the worst decision you could make in that instance). Franklin then got offered by Vanderbilt, and I feel that he took that offer because he thought his chances with Maryland weren't particularly high. Maryland was a much better job than Vanderbilt, which at the time was thought to be one of the worst positions in the FBS. Things are a bit more murky now, but I would think that if Franklin felt he was getting a Maryland offer, he would have declined Vanderbilt. Either way, he went to Nashville, and Maryland ended up where they are now.

FlaTerp: One of the places Maryland is now, sadly, is on the outside looking in when it comes to in-state recruiting. I checked out Rivals' top-35 list of Maryland 2014 prospects and the Terps have landed only two of them, No. 2 Jesse Aniebonam and No. 25 Josh Woods. That's horrible, inexcusably horrible, but it's not Franklin's fault anymore, of course. I would, however, say that the dynamic itself -- where Maryland doesn't have any recruiting clout in their own backyard -- was born when Franklin, and to be fair, Friedgen, were watching the shop. I didn't like Franklin the recruiter because he didn't land, or even get in the discussion really, with the most important local kids, some of whom I mentioned above. He didn't recruit Maryland particularly well while he was at Maryland and he definitely hasn't recruited Maryland well from Vanderbilt. I don't see why he'll suddenly be a great Maryland recruiter now at Penn State when he never really was before. If you want to recite a list of 3-star home-state kids he recruited to the Terps and who turned into good players, that's fine, but James Franklin the Penn State coach won't be scouring Maryland for 3-star kids -- he'll get those kids from Pennsylvania now.

Pete: You said it yourself earlier -- Penn State already has a built-in advantage with Maryland kids, due to the clout of the program. Add that to a recruiter who does have ties to the region, and I do think you'll have someone who recruits Maryland at an even higher level.

Sure, I can list the Davin Meggetts and Jeremiah Johnsons and other such three-star players that Franklin recruited in his time with Maryland, but you want four stars? I'll give you four stars. A lot of these players didn't work out for one reason or another, but since we're discounting performance at Maryland they're all going to count in this discussion. Again, these are in just three recruiting classes:

Devonte Campbell
DeOnte Arnett
David Mackall
Caleb Porzel
Pete White
Nate Clarke
Javarie Johnson (we can put a big ol' asterisk here, but he did commit and all that)
Titus Till

Not exactly a who's who of all-time Terp greats, but you wanted some guys who were higher than three-stars? There you go.

FlaTerp: I think I just developed a facial tick after reading that list. "A lot of them didn't work out"? That's an understatement! If your defense of Franklin as a high-level recruiter is that he did land some high-level kids that were almost all busts, I don't know if I'm buying that as a pro-Franklin point. I guess there's a greater argument you're unearthing about the merit of the star-based rankings, but let's hash that one out some other time. What will ultimately determine what we're debating here, whether Franklin at Penn State is any worse for Maryland than whatever other coach they might've hired, is what happens on the field. I'll repeat the history: Penn State 35 wins, Maryland 1 win. That's not encouraging.

But at this particular moment in time, it seems like Penn State is a little vulnerable due to the sequence of ghastly events that led to Franklin being there in the first place. I know the Nittany Lions have Hackenberg and some other nice talent, but they'll also be working under a new coach, a new system, scholarship limitations and no bowl prospects to look forward to. Seems like maybe the Terps' chances to shake up the natural order of things next season may be higher than usual, no? Is Franklin on the sidelines going to make it any harder for Maryland than if it were Bill O'Brien, Al Golden or Mike Munchak coaching?

Pete: I think it's safe to say that a large number of those recruits were busts after Franklin left (or they had issues not related to talent), so it's not fair to put them on him. But if we're saying "three star guys who worked out don't count," then certainly four stars who don't work out don't count either.

And I think that is a very good point -- in the short-term, the Franklin hire may be a good thing for Maryland. Penn State is certainly more vulnerable than they have been in the past, and I don't think the Terps will be heavy underdogs this year (like they normally would be). I guess the crux of my argument is I think Franklin had the best chance of those four guys of bringing Penn State back to national prominence

So I'll ask you this -- what do you think Penn State looks like under Franklin, next season and in four years? Is he in the NFL by then? Or are they still in the 7-8 win range?

FlaTerp: To me, the big question is will Hackenberg, the pro-style passer, be a good match with Franklin, the spread coach. It's worth worrying about a little bit -- remember DOB in the Gary Crowton offense? (damn - there goes that facial tick again!). Hackenberg is a big enough talent that a smart coach will build a system around his strengths (like Maryland didn't do with DOB). You can already tell from my prior entries that I have tremendous respect for what Bill O'Brien accomplished at PSU, so I think the table has already been set for a continued rise back to prominence. Based on Franklin's success at Vanderbilt combined with that strong foundation, it's fair to expect a jump to 8-9 wins next year.

Four years from now, when all those sanctions are lifted, Penn State could absolutely be a national championship contender if Franklin is as good as advertised. In that scenario, would Franklin still be around? Hard to say. On the one hand, you could definitely accuse him of job-jumping at this point, but on the other hand, every move he's made makes perfect sense. He's a Pa. native so Penn State could easily be an end destination for a guy like that. Franklin strikes me as young and hungry, though. Young, hungry guys may want to know if they've got what it takes to coach, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys someday. You've been around Franklin, Pete. Does he have the chops to hit a home run in Happy Valley? Would he then strike you as a Penn State lifer or an NFL dreamer?

Pete: At least you didn't bring up Bradford, FlaTerp. That's your one saving grace. And I certainly think he does have that coaching ability, but everyone should know by this point that my opinion of Franklin could not really be higher. That being said, I do see him as someone who jumps to the NFL, maybe even in three years time. I don't know if he'll be able to have the same success there as in college, but he is someone who wants to get to the highest levels of the profession.

But now we've drifted away from talking about how Penn State impacts Maryland and are now just chatting about Penn State in general, so it might be time to close the book on this one.

FlaTerp: Agreed. Let's just hope the Terps become a bigger part of the James Franklin story in 2014 by beating his team. Then we can revisit the rivalry thing.

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