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Penn State staying optimistic despite rough recruiting finish

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin didn't want to hear any negativity surrounding his recruiting class. And he certainly didn't want to talk about it.

Sure, he had a good class. A great class, even. Penn State finished with the nation's No. 18 group and reeled in star prospects like defensive end Shane Simmons, the 14th-best high school player in the country. But there was no denying the Nittany Lions' rocky finish -- even if Franklin would've preferred to ignore it.

"What I'd prefer to do -- which I know you guys don't want to -- but I'd like to focus on the progress," Franklin said, when asked about Penn State's decommitments. "I'd like to talk about all the positive things that are going on in our program."

True, there is a lot to be happy about. Running back Miles Sanders, one of the nation's most electric offensive recruits, stayed loyal to the Nittany Lions. And eight ESPN 300 prospects faxed in their letters of intent Wednesday. But since the start of the 2015 season, Penn State still lost seven commitments -- all of whom boasted an ESPN grade of 76 or higher -- and replaced them with just six pledges, all but one of whom had a grade of 76 or lower.

It's a finish that has caused a slight divide among the fan base: This class is good, but the ending was a disappointment. From August to November, Penn State held firm at the No. 4 spot in the national recruiting rankings. But since then, only one FBS team fell off more than Franklin's squad, which slid 14 spots. (Arizona fell from No. 30 in November to No. 47.)

"I'm just glad I'm not the University of Miami, who lost 22 guys," said Terry Smith, the cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator. "It's a sign of the times; guys are going to change their mind."

Really, it's all a matter of perspective. Penn State still did incredibly well. Only two schools within 475 miles -- Michigan and Ohio State -- were ranked higher in ESPN's recruiting rankings. But fans thought Penn State won the recruiting Powerball back in November and then, upon further review, noticed they were a number off. The Nittany Lions are still incredibly rich in talent, a lot richer than most other schools, but it's not quite the haul or jackpot they anticipated.

Could it have been better? You bet. Penn State whiffed on just about every key target once the 2015 season started. Could it have been worse? Absolutely. Offensive line coach Herb Hand, an assistant beloved by players, bolted for Auburn, and all of Penn State's OL commits stayed put.

"Our heart was pounding when Herb left," admitted wide receivers coach Josh Gattis, the offensive recruiting coordinator. "We were concerned. I can't fake that; I can't lie about that."

For every Penn State misstep the last six months, for every decommitment and failed expectation, there's also been a reason for this staff to stay positive. Penn State parted ways with four-star DE Karamo Dioubate, but it still signed three ESPN 300 defensive linemen. It won just seven games in back-to-back seasons but, over the last two years, only Penn State and Texas have boasted a top-20 recruiting class while winning less than a combined 15 games.

Franklin and Co. promised the signees in this class that the Nittany Lions would soon be near the top of the Big Ten pecking order and, despite the negatives, most recruits bought in -- even if they had more attractive offers elsewhere. Take a look at offensive lineman Will Fries, for example, who boasted scholarships from Clemson and Michigan.

"There's this vision that we're going to be back on top, and everyone's buying into that," Fries told ESPN.com. "Sometimes people decommit for personal reasons, but the guys who stayed definitely believe in the coaches' message. That's our group feel."

As long as that feeling lasts, as long as recruits still believe in that, Penn State should be fine. That's really the big question here: Is Penn State's lousy finish the start of a trend or the end to a slump? For recruits, it's all about perception -- because the truth is that nobody knows for sure.

And that's why Franklin is trying to stay positive.