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February 3, 2016
JF: We really want [recruiting] to be about relationships and about the things that we think it should be about, which is getting a world class education and surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals that want to go on and be really successful. So it's been fun. It's been crazy and [our coaching staff is] looking forward to getting these guys on campus so we can continue to build on the foundation that their parents have laid and help these guys mature and leave here as educated men that are prepared for life.
We had a morning workout yesterday with our team at 5:30 a.m. We hadn't done that in the past, so we were able to get a workout in yesterday, and then the coaching staff will have some time off. We're going to be really nice and give everybody off Thursday and Friday, and then we'll get back to work on Monday and get ready for spring ball.
We have a lot of work to do, obviously with Coach [Joe] Moorhead as our new offensive coordinator, Coach [Matt] Limegrover as our new offensive line coach. Coach [Brent] Pry is moving into a new role as [primary] defensive coordinator instead of co-defensive coordinator, and Coach [Tim] Banks joins our staff as safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator. So [there is ] a lot of work to do.
Some interesting facts that I would like to mention are; we have 16 team captains in this recruiting class, which, to me, is always interesting. You want to look at those things because, obviously, that speaks a lot for how their teammates look at them and how their coaches view them. There are six state championships, four Under Armour All-Americans, six Semper Fidelis All-Americans, two Gatorade Players of the Year and one Army All-American.
I think a stat that's pretty significant and shows the progress that is being made is that we've signed 21 four- or five-star recruits in the last two years. We had 11 four- or five-start commits in the previous three classes before we arrived. That's star rankings and we know those things are not the end-all be-all.
Matt McGloin was with us this morning. I think he's a great example of a guy that took advantage of his opportunity here at Penn State. Matt and Carl Nassib, I think are two of the better stories in college football, but we all know that the rankings do have some significance. There is no doubt about that. We signed two commits that were rated as five- star recruits, the first time with two five-star recruits in the same class at Penn State since 2006. Twelve commits rated four stars or higher, according to the four major recruiting services, which are the second most four-star signees since 2006.
So if you look at it; In 2016, we had 12 [four-star recruits or higher]. In 2015, we had 13. in 2014, there were six. Then in 2013 there were three; and in 2012, there was one. So I think it is obvious that there is progress being made, and we're always going to focus on the young men that are joining our program and how we're so excited about those guys.
Our recruiting class is ranked No. 3 in the Big Ten, and we're not going to be satisfied until we're No. 1 in everything we do. Like I say all the time, I take pictures with fans and people in the community, and I always throw up that No. 1, and that's because we want to be number one in graduation rates and we're working to be number one in all of the other areas as well.
So those are just a few points that I thought you guys would be interested in that I would throw out to you. We also had eight states represented. You guys know how we feel kind of about the footprint. You look at Florida, Texas, and California generally somewhere in the ballpark between 250 and 350 Division I prospects. Pennsylvania's usually around 35 on average somewhere around there. So we look at the footprint, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland - basically a five- to six-hour radius from campus.
Q. There were a lot of kids de-committing and flipping to and from other schools to you, your school to other schools. How stressful is that on a coaching staff? How difficult does it make it, and how do you feel you've come out of that flurry of action?
JF: I think if you take everything into consideration, I think we did really well.
We hired a new offensive line coach. We didn't lose one offensive line commit. We got the number one running back in the country committed to us, and he stayed true. His mom was a huge part. She really saw the big picture and really believed in everything that was going on. You look and there is a program in the ACC I think had 24 de-commitments this year. I saw a statistic somewhere with some ridiculous number like almost 250 kids de-committed between the coaches' convention and National Signing Day. So it's a little bit the way the industry is going.
It's really not the way we do business. We've been pretty fortunate over our last five years not to have a lot of drama. We pretty much knew who was coming and who wasn't beforehand. This year was a little bit different from that perspective. But overall, we don't do a whole lot of recruiting in the 11th hour. We were able to build relationships and stick with the guys for the long-term. If you look, that has been the case with most of our commitments. But there were some challenges, no doubt about it. I'm really proud of the coaches and how they handled that, how they handled that adversity. I couldn't be more proud and more excited about the direction [we are heading] because it's easy to look at things when everything is going smooth and easy, but a lot of times it's how do you handle adversity.
Coach [Joe] Moorhead has a great quote: At first you kind of overcome the storm and then you become the storm, and that's what we're really trying to do. Overcome some of the adversity that we've been through and then become a storm later on.
Q. You mentioned the scrambling and the challenges particularly in the last month, with some de-commitments. Why do you think that was more the case this year than in previous years? And you also mentioned not being satisfied until you're number one. What's it going to take to take that next step up the ladder?
JF: What I'd prefer to do is to focus on the progress. I'd like to focus on the last two recruiting classes that were clearly two of the better recruiting classes in the last five years. I know you don't want to talk about that, but I'd love to talk about that. We have the number one running back in the country committed to us. I'd like to talk about all the significant positive things that are going on in our program.
Obviously, everybody knows coming in here I don't need to get into the challenges. Those things have been talked about enough. So what I'd like to talk about is all the tremendous progress, all the great families and all the great football players that are joining our family, and that's our focus.
Q. When you were speaking to Miles Sanders' mom this morning, you joked around with her that you guys might try to write a book with all the things that you guys went through when you were trying to recruit Miles. What specifically were some of the things?
JF: I think what happens is at Penn State we spend almost all of our time talking about the wonderful things we have here at Penn State: the academic reputation, the history, the traditions, the tremendous support that we get, and the direction that we're going. You've heard me say this before, this isn't just a four-year decision, it is a forty year choice. I think when you look at it that way; Penn State is a tremendous option. I think Miles [Sanders] and his mom understood that. That was the commitment and that was the reason they made the decision.
What happens is, at the end of the recruiting period, it can get aggressive, and it can get nasty, and it can get relentless at times. I think we've been fortunate that we've recruited kids that get that. What happens is if you leave the door cracked open for people to come in, that's what they're going to do, they're going to attack.
I remember in the past I've heard schools saying they want kids to commit to schools [early] because [then] they know that's the school they have to attack. That's all they do is spend their time attacking that one school. So, I think when you have a strong young man, and when you have a strong parent and you have strong coaches that kind of get it and understand why they made the decision in the first place, then it helps. This is difficult. This can be challenging and stressful times on young people. They're making a very important decision. You're hearing a lot of different things from a lot of different people.
So Miles and his mom were awesome. Every time we'd go visit them, like I said, it was a celebration. It wasn't recruiting. We didn't really recruit Miles for the last six months. It was just going and having fun with him. Now, we're talking about Miles right now, but I'd say that for a good portion of our recruits it was going in and spending time with the families and having fun and laughing and enjoying ourselves. Not really selling Penn State because they were already sold.
Q. Unless I'm overlooking someone, I only saw one recruit from the Delaware Valley/South Jersey area, which seems unusual to me. What are the factors that contribute to that?
JF: There are a lot of different things that go into that. If you look at next year, we look at different positions, certain positions are really strong in our region, other positions may not be strong in our region that year. That's why we say, okay, we need to know that because say it's a certain position, let's say long snapper and there are no long snappers in the region, now we have to identify long snappers nationally. So some of that is that.
Some of that, you look at certain areas, and maybe they had some players that were great players but didn't fill a need that we were looking for this year. Some of those battles we won, some of those battles we didn't. That's across the board in college football. So, you know you look at our last two years and we've done a significant job in recruiting those areas. But you're going to have that. You're going to have years where you're strong [in one region] one year, and you're going to have years where you don't get as many players from that region, and that's going to be for a number of reasons. That's going to be need. That's going to be fit on both sides.
Q. Over the years have you had many recruits that show up to every home game like Connor McGovern. How much does him enrolling early help him to have an opportunity to crack that two deep the first year?
JF: I think Connor [McGovern]'s another example, like we were talking about Miles [Sanders]. His mom and dad are unbelievable. His dad is the superintendent of the school district. They've been great. He made a decision. He was very thorough, like most of our guys are on the front end, asking the tough questions, doing the research. Then he made a decision and never wavered. He never wavered one bit. Again, even when Coach [Matt] Limegrover came in, I think the home visit was four hours. It was not four hours of recruiting. It was four hours of eating sausage and kielbasa and laughing, eating pizza, the squares from Old Forge, and you just really enjoying yourself.
He's kind of unusual because typically centers are a little shorter. You can get away with centers that are 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2. I think ideally, if you look at the NFL, 6-foot-3 is what they're looking for. He's almost 6-foot-5. He's 312 pounds right now. He's still baby faced. He can run. He can jump. He came to our camp and tested unbelievably well.
We try to get guys to get on board with us, and then we want them to come to camp and compete and develop a working relationship with our coaches. We want them to see how he coaches, what the drills are going to be and things like that. [Connor] came to camp and tested even better than we anticipated him testing, his running, his jumping, all of his numbers.
Then the fact that he graduated early and is on campus is going to give him a chance. It's hard to play on the offensive line as a freshman, but the fact that he's here six months early and he's already a big, physical, strong guy and very intelligent gives him a shot. It gives him a shot. So he's a unique guy.
He was very emotional today. His dad came up for the signing day celebration. He was in the war room with us, and he was able to announce his son. So he got up behind the podium and announced his son and he got emotional as his dad introducing his son coming to Penn State. So to me, that's what it's all about.
If you're a Pennsylvania kid and you've got a chance to play at the state school and stay home and get all the things you're looking for, it's a pretty unique opportunity. It really is. Their family realized that early on.
Q. Curious about two things. First, how important was Tyrell Chavis to this class? Also, how important are Alex Barbir and Blake Gillikin to this class, and if those guys can have a chance to participate in the 2016 season?
JF: Great questions. I would say we had identified Tyrell [Chavis] very early on in the process. Again, just like I said with the offensive line, it is difficult to play on the defensive as a freshman, although we're going to probably have to have a few guys do that. So being able to get a guy who is older, more mature, he's about 6'4", he's about 300 pounds right now. It was amazing. When he came on his visit, I don't know how, but he wears number seven. He wore number seven in college. He wanted to wear the number seven jersey here when he took all his pictures, and that jersey was like a schmedium. Watching him trying to get that thing on and get that thing off was impressive.
But, yeah, having a veteran older guy like that that's played against older players and been very successful. He had offers from everybody in the country, and being able to get an older guy like that on board with us was significant, no doubt about it.
The two specialists? Obviously with [Sam] Ficken moving on, we hadn't had a recruited scholarship player in the program in the kicking, punting and snapping positions. As you guys know, as well as we do, you could probably make an argument over the last two years that maybe four games could come out differently if we could have been a little more consistent on special teams in terms of swinging field position and things like that. So having two guys come in that we've seen kick in person have been very, very successful at camps that they've been very successful in games.
You look at Blake Gillikin and what he did in his state championship game. That was as impressive of a performance as we've ever been around. Alex Barbir came to our camp and crushed a ball. He has a really strong leg and is really competitive. They both train with the same coach, so they had a relationship, so that helped to go to Georgia and get two guys to come here. They'll have an opportunity to come and compete.
We really like the guys we have in our program. I think they're going to take a step this year with what they learned last year, and they're working really hard right now. This is going to allow us to bring two more guys in to compete with them to give us the best opportunity to be successful on Saturdays.
Q. What position do you project Michal Menet, first of all? And you went through a little bit of drama at the end of recruiting. Would you like to see an early signing period like in basketball?
JF: Yes. Yes, I would. I'd love an early signing period. I'll answer that question as quick as possible. I think an early signing period would make sense. I think you could put something on there that if there was a change at the head coaching position that they would have the opportunity to be void at that point.
To me, I probably have a little different opinion on this. I think the early signing period should be for the kids that wanted to go to Penn State their whole life and don't really want to go anywhere. So, let's get those guys locked up. They don't want to go on any other visits or do any of those things. This is just the school they want to go to. So why not get those guys locked up? At each state and each school there are kids like that. That actually helps the schools that are maybe wasting their time recruiting a kid, as well. So I do think it makes a lot of sense.
The problem is we all know these decisions seem very simple but there is a trickle-down effect. There is a trickle-down effect to a lot of other things. When would that signing period be? What are you doing with the National Letter of Intent? Are you going to offer official visits early? To me, I don't want to get into those things. I don't want to change the calendar on official visits. I'd like it to be the same and keep it for the kids I just described.
The kids that says I was always going to Penn State, that's where I'm going. It may not be a huge number, but it also lets you know how committed they are. You commit, we say `okay, sign the paper.' If they waiver, you know they're not truly committed. So I think it could be good for both. You talked about Michal Menet. He's a guy that committed very early on. The whole family committed. The high school coach committed. The athletic director committed and they never wavered.
We lost our offensive line coach, another offensive line coach in the conference called him and said, `Hey, I don't know if you know, we really want you at School X, and they don't have a line coach at Penn State right now, so are you interested?' And Michal's response was, `Well, if you want me, you better take the Penn State job.' To me, that just talks about how that family was committed to us.
You talk about what position he's going to play. We try to recruit guys that create flexibility. I'm not a big believer in recruiting guys that are going to play only guard or only center. You'd like to recruit guys that create flexibility, guys with tackle body types. You want guys that are 6-foot4 or taller that could go in and play guard. Typically, guards are a little bit shorter with a little more girth to them, but the reason I'm saying all this is we want guys that create flexibility in terms of athleticism, movement, power and intelligence. I think Menet is one of those guys.
If you look at all four of our offensive linemen [you can see that]. [Will] Fries, everybody had him slated as an offensive tackle, and we do as well. But if you look, he played a lot of guard in high school. He is a big, physical guy.
Menet's a guy that I think has the athletic ability to play tackle, has the intelligence to play center, and has the power to play guard. I'd say the same thing for [Connor] McGovern. Typically centers are center-only or they're a center and you a swing guy to guard. But I would not say that McGovern couldn't play tackle for us, as well.
Gellerstedt is the one guy at this point in his career who is probably a true prototype tackle, 6-foot-6, 277 pounds. And you've got to remember too, he was a defensive end up until his junior year, so offensive line is still new to him. So I would say he's more of a tackle. But we would like to train him, Coach [Joe] Moorhead and Coach [Matt] Limegrover would like to train him over time to be able to give us flexibility. That is something I'm excited about, as you guys know.
We kind of had a situation on the offensive line where we had to train all those guys to play five positions because that's how we were creating depth. When you do that, it's difficult to master one. So now that we're starting to get the depth, a true three deep on the offensive line, you're allowing guys to stay at a position and become a master of their craft at that specific position.
Q. Penn State isn't yet a top 25 team on the field, but for the last two seasons you've had top 15, top 20 classes in recruiting. Why do you think those guys have been so receptive to Penn State and your staff? And how close do you think because of these two groups Penn State is to cracking the top 25 on the field?
JF: I think that's a great question. If you look at programs across the country that are consistently successful, they have a roster full of those guys. They have five recruiting classes like that. Are there some exceptions to those rules? Yes. But not many.
So I think , the combination of our coaching staff with this university and what it stands for and what it's all about, our history and our traditions, the pride, and our players. I think our players are probably our greatest asset. When we do a player panel -- I've been to a lot of schools where you do a player panel on an unofficial or official visit, and if that recruit has been there five times, it's the same five guys up there. I hear parents afterwards talk about every time they come there is a different player up there, and how articulate they are and how thoughtful they are and how they handle themselves and how they present themselves. So we just have so many positive things to sell.
Are there other schools that we're competing against that also have positive things to sell? No doubt about it. But I think what everybody is looking for is a fit. We're looking for the right type of kid that makes sense at Penn State. The recruits are looking for the right type of fit with the university and coaching staff as well. And when those stars align, you've got a chance to bring in guys that have opportunities from all over the country.
You know, the next phase that you're talking about on the field is taking those steps. I think we have made progress. We still have a lot of work to do, but this spring ball is going to be a big part of that. The freshmen that will report this summer and will be able to contribute in significant roles or in backup roles that are going to help with those things.
But I think if you study those things, it's pretty apparent, it's pretty obvious, the programs that are able to do it for the long-term are able to sustain it.
I'd also make the argument that the programs that are taking shortcuts or are making some choices early on to have instant success, it's hard to sustain that. When we're trying to do is make very thoughtful decisions about Penn State, about the direction we're going, and how we want to build it, and feel really good about that.
Q. We've seen a lot of creativity in this recruiting cycle from pretty much everywhere in the country, and you took, it looked like a van or a bus to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. Are you ever surprised at where this is going as a whole and would you be open to going to some of those more unconventional methods, if that's what it takes?
JF: I think, like anything in life, there is a fine line to it. I think social media is a real challenge because there is so much information, there is so much being said, there is so much interaction between fans. Obviously we all know there are rules and our Penn State fans do a great job of not interacting and tweeting recruits and things like that, but that's going on all over the country.
To me, we want to be creative, not creepy. That is how I would describe it. We want to be creative, not creepy. That's what our staff likes to do. We like to have fun and we like to think outside the box. We like to have fun with recruits and their families. But to me, it's more about relationships. It's about the coaches. It's about the athletic directors. It's about the guidance counselors. It's about the parents. It's about building those relationships. Those other things are fun, and I appreciate other people being creative and thinking outside the box, and we're going to try to do the same thing, but, like anything in life, there is a fine line to it.
Q. Is that the first time you've ever taken a bus to get kids or have you done that before?
JF: No, that's not unusual whatsoever. A lot of times families or young men need the opportunity to get to campus, and you find ways to be able to do that and help them. Obviously, when we were bringing a whole group from one specific area it made sense to bring them all like that. So it was a black, SUV/bus-type thing. So I wouldn't characterize it as over the top.
Q. You mentioned the Miles Sanders recruitment ended six months ago for all intents and purposes. But obviously six months ago Saquon hadn't happened yet. So how do you have a conversation with a kid who sees himself in one role and you have someone else step up and make that impact and balance out the fact that they're roughly the same age, they're going to have to share that load? How did those conversations go with him specific or maybe any kid that has to face that?
JF: I think that's a good question. If you look around college football right now and you look in the NFL, you need multiple running backs. You're going to need three running backs that you can depend on.
You look at the programs like Penn State, they're going to go out and sign significant players at the same position every single year. And you have to embrace competition. You have to embrace the ability to come in and compete. I think in a lot of ways the success that Saquon had this year was actually a positive, because Miles [Sanders] could see himself having success like that and knowing that we were going to need multiple backs that are elite to help us go where we want to go.
It's not just Saquon [Barkley], you can look at the other backs we have in our program right now. It's going to be really good competition there. And I know they're excited for it as well. All the rankings are great, and Miles has earned those, but he's going to come to Penn State and have to earn them again.
Q. You signed seven players from the Philadelphia area last year, and this year you only signed one. Do you wish you had more success in Philadelphia this year or does that go back to not having the prospects to fill your areas of need?
JF: I would make the argument that every year we want to obviously do a great job of recruiting the state of Pennsylvania. That's very, very important to us, and the region. But I think you're going to need to look. That's going to change every year. There's going to be one year where there is 15 Division I prospects that come out of the city of Philadelphia or area of Philadelphia. There will be years where there are five. The same thing will be true in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and throughout the state. There are going to be some years where there are 45 BCS players in the state of Pennsylvania. There are going to be other years where there are 15. So that's going to happen.
But, yeah, we always want to have as much success as we possibly can in all these areas. But if you guys are going to study numbers about how many guys we sign out of certain areas, it's going to be different every single year.
Q.What did you like about Brenon Thrift? At what part of the process do you guys start thinking junior college kids for the positions where you're going to be shorthanded after graduations?
JF: Brenon [Thrift] was a guy that we've been aware of for a long time. He went to Gateway High School, which we have a guy on our staff that was the head coach at Gateway. So you talk about having a relationship for a long time and knowing the guy, knowing what he's all about and knowing his family. Those things help. Obviously, we've got a great relationship with Lackawanna, as well, so when you're able to get a guy, it's a little unique because he has three years of eligibility left. He can come in here and it's not like a typical junior college player, he has three years of eligibility. He's 285 pounds right now, so it's a unique situation and we knew there was mutual interest, with a guy that we'd been investigating for a long time.
Then at the end it made sense for both parties. And Terry [Smith] was a big part of that, as well as Coach [Ricky] Rahne. It just came back to the fit. It made sense for him and his family and Penn State based on the need we had at the position and the talent and his background. He's done extremely well academically there, so we are looking forward to getting him on campus as soon as we possibly can.
Q. I saw one of the comments from the kids that you wanted to not redshirt anybody in the class. Did I misinterpret that or did he misinterpret that? Do you plan to red-shirt some of these kids?
JF: This is the same discussion we've had the last two press conferences. We tell them all that we want them to come in with the mentality that they're going to play. Then, once they show up on campus and right before camp starts or right after camp starts we'll get a couple weeks into camp and we'll determine that. We recruit every single one of these guys with the mentality they're going to come in and play and impact the roster and play as freshmen. The guys that aren't ready, we'll have those conversations with them. It has to do with them. It has to do with our depth. It has to do with their physical maturity, their emotional maturity, and their ability to pick up the playbooks on offense, defense and special teams. But, yeah, I want them all to have that mentality.