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James Franklin dominating the state as he enters Year 4 at PSU

After being introduced as Penn State’s head coach in January 2014, James Franklin said something that will either be etched on his tombstone or scrawled upon it by graffiti artists.

He said he wanted to “dominate the state.”

He was talking specifically about recruiting, which in truth is (and always has been) the goal of the guy heading the commonwealth's highest-profile Division I football program: You want to keep the best kids close to home.

The phrase was nonetheless used to mock him as his team struggled through consecutive 7-6 seasons his first two years on the job. The Lions broke out in 2016, going 11-3 and winning the Big Ten, and now it can be said with certainty that he has lived up to his vow — that while he and his staff have generally excelled on the recruiting trail, they have done particularly well in their backyard.

That very much includes the Delaware Valley, as stands to reason: Franklin is a Langhorne native.

Of the 120 players listed on the Nittany Lions’ preseason roster, 45 are Pennsylvanians. That’s 37.5 percent and includes a guy who is not only the best player on the team but also one of the best in the country, running back Saquon Barkley. While a native of the Bronx, he grew up near Allentown. 

With a couple New Jerseyans factored in, there are 14 from Philadelphia and its environs. They include left tackle Ryan Bates (Warrington/Archbishop Wood), the Lions’ best offensive lineman, starting defensive tackle Curtis Cothran (Newtown/Council Rock North) and starting defensive end Shareef Miller (Philadelphia/George Washington).

Also in that number are Miller’s two primary backups, Ryan Buchholz (Malvern/Great Valley) and Shaka Toney (Philadelphia/Imhotep Charter), as well as starting wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Glassboro, New Jersey), who is widely viewed as a breakout candidate this season, his first as a regular.

(Not included on the season’s first depth chart, released Tuesday, was cornerback John Reid [Mount Laurel, New Jersey/St. Joe’s Prep]. A returning starter, he injured a knee during spring practice and is expected to miss much of the season, if not all of it.)

“Obviously for us to be the team we want to be and have the type of program that we want to have, we have to go a great job in the state of Pennsylvania,” Franklin said Tuesday, as he looked ahead to Saturday’s season opener against Akron.

He noted not only his ties to the Philadelphia area but also the fact that some of his former teammates at East Stroudsburg, where he played quarterback in the early 1990s, have gone into coaching.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he said, “when you can walk into a high school office and you’ve got a relationship, and you kind of understand those schools and their backgrounds and their strengths and their weaknesses, all those types of things, it helps. It really does. They have a familiarity with you, you have a familiarity with them and there’s trust there. So I think all those relationships and those networks have been critical to what we’ve been able to do so far.”

Bates is a guy all the big schools wanted, after serving as a two-way tackle on a Wood club that won consecutive state titles in 2013 and 2014. He redshirted his first year at PSU while beginning the growth process from 275 pounds to his current 315. Last season, he started the first 10 games at left guard and the last four at left tackle, after injuries left the Lions threadbare at the latter position.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal for me,” he said. “I do feel more comfortable out at tackle, honestly. I feel better in space. I trust my feet.”

He wound up making a pair of freshman All-America teams, and line coach Matt Limegrover now regards the redshirt sophomore as a guy who is “going to be a cornerstone for us the next three years.”

The other locals have grown into their roles as well — in Cothran’s case, literally. He was a 230-pound defensive end when he arrived on campus in 2013. He is now listed at 295, and after starting eight games last year said Tuesday that he considers it “a blessing” to be listed as the regular heading into the opener.

“And,” he added, “it definitely just shows the amount of work that goes into it. I mean, nothing's ever easy, especially in college football. Through the years of grinding everything out, I'm thankful to be here.”

Same for Johnson, who last year recorded his first two career catches but is now filling the spot played in 2016 by Chris Godwin, a third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Sleep on me if you want to,” it said on Johnson’s Twitter page at one point during spring practice. “I’ll wake you up soon.”

By then the 6-foot-4, 218-pound redshirt sophomore had awakened just about everybody. Admittedly inconsistent his first two seasons in the program, his strides were such that receivers coach Josh Gattis called him “one of the most improved players on the team” in an interview with the Big Ten Network.

Nothing appears to have changed since then.

“Eager season,” it now says on Johnson’s Twitter page.

The defensive end corps likewise oozes potential, despite the departures of the starters Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Miller and Buchholz both saw plenty of action last year — position coach Sean Spencer prefers to rotate fresh bodies — and redshirt freshmen like Shane Simmons and Toney are intriguing prospects.

Cothran, in fact, called Simmons “a freak of nature,” and Bates said much the same of Toney, who is unusually slight (6-3, 218) for his position.

“Shaka,” Bates said, “is probably one of the fastest guys I've ever gone against. I feel like I'm playing a corner at defensive end just because of his sheer speed and his quickness coming off the ball.”

The Lions likewise appear to have turned a corner. And it is in large part because they have taken some familiar exits.