Blue White Illustrated

March 2024

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 62 of 75

M A R C H 2 0 2 4 6 3 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M E D I T O R I A L M AT T H E R B M AT T. H E R B @ O N 3 . C O M M ichigan posted an abundance of impressive numbers during its recently concluded national cham- pionship campaign, but here's one that even a lot of hardcore college football fans might not know: 56.3. That's the percentage of blue-chip recruits the Wolverines signed in the five classes leading up to their championship. Blue-chip recruits are defined as those who received a four- or five-star grade in the On3 Industry Ranking, and Michigan had fewer of them than any title-win- ning team since the start of the College Football Playoff era in 2014. None of the other nine winners were below 60 per- cent, and the majority were right around 80 percent. That the Wolverines could go 15-0 with a CFP semifinal win over Alabama, a team with hardly any players who weren't blue-chip prospects, tells us something about the importance of de- velopment and retention. Michigan was a veteran team this past year, and it showed. When the Wol- verines needed a stop late in the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game, they got it. When they needed a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl, they got that, too. Michigan's composure was one of the defining characteristics of its season, maybe the defining charac- teristic. Whether that approach can be repli- cated by other programs in the years to come is a question that a lot of coaches around the country are likely asking themselves right now. It's particularly relevant at Penn State, because if the Nittany Lions are going to vie for Big Ten and national championships, they are almost certainly going to have to do it with classes like the one they just signed — classes that contain their fair share of outstanding players but that don't match the recruiting hauls of Ohio State, Or- egon and the SEC powers star for star. Penn State's most recent class came in 16th in the On3 Industry Team Ranking, one spot below Michigan. By contrast, Ohio State came in third and Oregon fourth. In addition to being fixtures at the top of the recruiting rankings, the Ducks and Buckeyes have shown they can fill whatever holes they may have through judicious use of the transfer portal. Both needed quarterbacks this year, so Oregon went out and got Dante Moore of UCLA and Dillon Gabriel of Oklahoma, while Ohio State landed Kansas State's Will Howard as part of an NIL spending spree aimed at ending a three-game losing streak to That Team Up North. Penn State has had its own transfer portal success stories in recent years, no- tably Chop Robinson, a first-team All- Big Ten defensive end in 2023 and soon to be an early-round NFL Draft pick. But as James Franklin noted recently, the portal is always going to be viewed as a supplementary tool at Penn State, not a shortcut to building a roster. The staff would rather assemble its team by mak- ing astute judgments on the recruiting trail and following up with diligent work in the weight room and on the practice field. It's a proven approach, though you might not know it from the way the an- nual wave of postseason comings and goings has come to dominate the head- lines. "'Development' is a word that isn't even used anymore," Franklin said. "It's like I tell the players when they show up on campus and their parents, 'You came here because we want to develop you. If you decide to jump in the transfer portal a year from now, you don't give us the time to develop you, and you're almost forcing us to go into the transfer portal.' "Teams that are heavy transfer-portal teams, they're basically saying, 'We're not going to develop, we're just going to go out and get guys that we know are proven commodities and have them come to campus.'" As part of its effort to retain players, Franklin said that Penn State wants NIL initiatives to be focused on taking care of current team members first and fore- most. "Our current roster is the priority, holding onto those guys," he said. The effort seemed to work this year. The Nittany Lions lost only one starter to the portal — receiver Dante Cephas — while bringing back a number of seniors who would have had options if they had sought a transfer or tried their luck in the NFL. That list includes defensive tackles Dvon Ellies and Hakeem Beamon, tight end Tyler Warren and wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith. With those players back to comple- ment the likes of junior quarterback Drew Allar, junior running backs Kay- tron Allen and Nicholas Singleton and junior defensive end Abdul Carter, ESPN college football analyst Bill Connelly re- cently ranked Penn State 23rd in the FBS in returning productivity at 70 percent. Having an experienced roster won't win football games by itself, but as we saw last season, it's an awfully good place to start. ■ James Franklin has aimed to build Penn State's roster through conventional high school recruiting, while using the transfer portal as a supplementary tool. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL For PSU, Player Development Is The Path To Success VARSITY VIEWS

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