Lions try to give their QB a little support

UNIVERSITY PARK – Christian Hackenberg is at the center of so much that the Penn State football program does, and that even goes for recruiting, as coach James Franklin mentioned when asked to run down what he’d hoped to address in his first class as Nittany Lions coach.

“We’ve got a quarterback that we feel really good about,” Franklin said. “It would be a shame if we didn’t find some talent to surround him with.”

There’s nothing for Franklin and his staff to be ashamed about.

Penn State unveiled its 2014 recruiting class on signing day Wednesday. The obvious highlight of a group ranked in the top 25 by all four major scouting services despite getting a late start after Franklin’s hiring and still dealing with some NCAA scholarship reductions was the addition of three consensus four-star wide receivers and one of the country’s best tight ends.

There also was an effort to shore up offensive tackle and safety positions the new staff thought were lagging.

“Very, very impressed with the staff and the class and how we were able to close strong at the end,” Franklin said in an afternoon press conference.

Although there were few surprises – the only uncommitted player to sign a letter-of-intent with the Lions was versatile Alabama defensive end Torrence Brown, who just was offered a scholarship this week – it was an eventful day. Franklin started out the morning with a hastily put together gathering in the Lions’ signing day “war room” with media, current players and others and, after the press conference at Beaver Stadium, shared the new class with fans across the street at the Bryce Jordan Center at the “Penn State Signature Event.”

“Today,” Franklin said, “is about celebrating the class.”

Penn State signed 20 players on Wednesday, adding them to five who enrolled last month and counted against the 2013 roster limits. Franklin pointed out early in the press conference that 15 states were represented along with three Under Armour All-Americans and 10 recruits rated four stars or higher by at least one recruiting network.

The lion’s share of those were players that could benefit the passing game. Penn State signed receivers Saeed Blacknall (New Jersey), Chris Godwin (Delaware) and Troy Apke (Mount Lebanon) to go along with already-enrolled DeAndre Thompkins (North Carolina). In addition, New Jersey tight end Mike Gesicki joined the team.

Blacknall, Godwin, Thompkins and Gesicki are considered four-star prospects by most recruiting services. Apke is a three-star with blazing speed whose father played linebacker at Pitt.

Godwin and Thompkins were teammates at the Under Armour All-American game. Thompkins is a smaller, elusive receiver who can be a threat after the catch and in the return game. Godwin is 6-foot-2 and thick with good speed.

Blacknall, meanwhile, has measurables similar to those of departing Lion standout receiver Allen Robinson: He’s 6-3, 210 and still runs around a 4.45 40. Blacknall was a late, surprise addition to the class, decommitting from Rutgers and coming on board after Franklin took over. He had offers from all over the country but wanted to stay close to home.

“He has tremendous speed for his size. He’s got great athletic ability. He can jump. He can catch. He can do a number of things,” said offensive recruiting coordinator and receivers coach Josh Gattis. “He’s an unbelievable talent. He’s going to be able to be an immediate impact guy.”

Although the Lions are pretty deep at tight end, Gesicki has the kind of ability like Blacknall, Thompkins and Godwin that might make it tough to keep him off the field. He’s rated by 247Sports as the top tight end prospect in the class.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a kid that was invited to the Army All-American Game and invited to the McDonald’s All-American Game in basketball. Pretty impressive,” Franklin said.

Penn State also signed three running backs with complementary styles – workhorse Johnathan Thomas from Massachusetts, speedy change-of-pace back Nick Scott from Virginia and compact, 5-7, 190-pound Mark Allen from Maryland. If things go according to plan, those players will give Hackenberg and his eventual successor – presumably four-star early-enrollee Michael O’Connor from Canada by way of Tennessee and Florida – plenty of weapons in his arsenal.

The coaches said Hackenberg’s presence helped them to recruit while they were recruiting to help him.

“He’s been a great ambassador for us as far as recruiting,” Gattis said. “Whenever you are able to go into a wide receiver’s home and sell them on one of the top quarterbacks in the country, that just sparks their eyes. They know it’s not just the play calling, but it takes the quarterback to be able to get them the ball.”

In addition, the Lions added four players who project as offensive tackles, all standing at least 6-6 with long arms and the frame to add weight.

“We only had two scholarship offensive tackles in the program,” Franklin said. “That’s not the position you really want to be in.”

On the defensive side, the secondary was the major point of emphasis, with a focus on safety. Penn State brought in six players listed as defensive backs, although California four-star Koa Farmer is something of a hybrid linebacker.

“It was just a reflection of going out and getting the best players we can,” defensive recruiting coordinator and safeties coach Terry Smith said, adding the wave of defensive back recruits wasn’t because the Lions were intending to run a 4-2-5 defense. “We want to get the best football players, and you can never have enough good cover guys. You look at the NFL or any major college program. You can keep putting those guys in because you have your nickel package, you have your dime package. There’s some packages where you put seven defensive backs in there.”

Penn State lost out on Louisville defensive end Lloyd Tubman, who signed with Kentucky, but the Lions replaced him with Alabama’s Torrence Brown, who had been expected to sign with Southern Mississippi. He, like fellow Alabaman Christian Campbell, a safety, committed to Penn State without ever stepping foot on campus.

“He came to camp at [Vanderbilt]. You’re talking about a guy who’s 6-foot-4, 235 pounds that was playing tailback in high school,” Franklin said of Brown. “We think he’s got a chance to be a 265-pounder.”

Franklin’s staff didn’t offer Brown a scholarship when they were at Vandy but five of Wednesday’s signees were former Commodore commits. Franklin has gotten some heat for that but was unapologetic.

“A lot of those kids started recruiting us. That’s because of the relationships,” Franklin said. “From that point on, it’s my responsibility to do everything in my power to help Penn State be as successful as we possibly can.”

Franklin felt Wednesday was a start in that direction.

“We have holes in the roster, and we’re not going to fill all of our needs and our depths in one year. It’s probably going to take a couple of years,” Franklin said.