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Four years, one Big Ten title later, Nittany Lions’ staff in midst of latest makeover

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James Franklin - AUDREY SNYDER / DKPS

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Josh Gattis' latest follows on Twitter included three of Alabama's most sought after recruiting targets, a tell-tale sign in the world of college football that Penn State's wide receivers coach is on the move to Alabama, as was first reported Friday afternoon. 

Gattis also changed the header on his Twitter from Penn State to the Crimson Tide and his location from Happy Valley to Tuscaloosa even though neither school has officially confirmed the move. Should Gattis be bound for SEC country,, it'll mark the end of another one of James Franklin's original Penn State hires, those who came with him from Vanderbilt to help revive a program that's now riding high after a Fiesta Bowl victory and a 2018 recruiting class that's ranked No. 4 in the nation per 247Sports.

What's happened at Penn State this offseason is the natural progression and evolution of all college coaching staffs. And, with teams able to add a 10th assistant coach for the first time this offseason, Gattis' recruiting success coupled with his work with Penn State's receivers made him a prime candidate to get plucked for another job. It's certainly telling when it's Nick Saban doing the hiring.

When Franklin came to Penn State in 2014, his staff of nine assistants was comprised of eight people he'd coached with at Vanderbilt. The lone exception was defensive recruiting coordinator, Penn State letterman and Gateway High School alumnus Terry Smith. Four years, one Big Ten title and two New Year's Six bowl games later, Franklin still has Smith but is down to just three of those original assistant coaches who worked with him at the previous institution -- Ricky Rahne, Sean Spencer and Brent Pry. All three have taken on additional roles and responsibilities since their arrival at Penn State, proving their loyalties to Franklin and his to them have been a two-way street.

"I think if you look at a lot of coaches at big-time programs like Penn State they got two or three core guys that have been with them for a long time," Franklin said last month after replacing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead by promoting Rahne. "Ricky is one of those guys."

[caption id="attachment_105265" align="aligncenter" width="594"] Penn State football's wide receivers coach Josh Gattis during spring ball. - AP[/caption]

After another offseason of coaching moves, it looks like Franklin perhaps more clearly than ever has his big three in Rahne, Spencer and Pry. Of the assistants now on this staff, they've been with him the longest and have been in Happy Valley since Day 1. That nucleus will give Penn State plenty to continue building around, and they'll be trusting whoever else Franklin brings in to round out this staff -- one that now needs a wide receivers coach that will join a newly hired tight ends coach/offensive recruiting coordinator; a running backs coach and a special teams/assistant defensive line coach -- can help this team continue to recruit and produce at a high level.

That's where replacing Gattis, whose official title at Alabama has yet to be announced, could be a little tricky.

Franklin's staffs have been a balance of Division I-AA guys -- a detail he's proud of because those coaches haven't had anything handed to them and are well versed at wearing many hats -- plus young go-getters such as Gattis, the 34-year-old wide receivers coach and offensive recruiting coordinator who was the youngest member of Penn State's staff.

But, Gattis' offensive coordinator and ultimately head coaching aspirations were well known. His recruiting track record, helping the Lions land top-25 classes every year since Franklin arrived, including this year's best haul yet -- and his success producing All-America receivers at every stop along the way -- certainly backs his bright future in the business. Oh yeah, so too does Saban's ringing endorsement in terms of a job at Alabama.

“My career aspirations are to be an offensive coordinator and later on down the road work my way up to be a head coach,” Gattis said last January.

He's certainly in a marquee spot to do just that in the coming years.

Perhaps getting passed over for the Lions' offensive coordinator job -- despite picking up the passing game coordinator title along the way -- was part of Gattis' desire to head elsewhere? But nobody can fault him for going to Alabama. Fresh off another National Championship, the Tide's fifth in nine years, this isn't the dreaded lateral move Franklin spoke so much about the past two offseasons, the one that prompted him to go to bat to get more money to keep his staff intact, resulting in the staff getting two-year extensions ahead of their Big Ten championship run.

Alabama is different in every sense of the word. Given how Gattis, Scout.com's 2015 recruiter of the year, pulled in talent at Penn State even when the program was coming off of NCAA sanctions, there's no telling what types of prospects he'll land at a place where history, tradition, national titles and essentially being an NFL feeder program all helps Alabama sell itself. Gattis also inherits a young Alabama receiving corps that put on a clinic in the National title game, one that only figures to get better with freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

If the lure of chasing championships at a place that does so at such a torrid pace isn't enough, perhaps the pay is better, too.

Still, last spring, Franklin said Gattis, a former safety at Wake Forest who spent two seasons in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, was more of a "blue blood" than the rest of this coaching staff. Gattis' coaching career started in 2010 at North Carolina as a graduate assistant and his coaching stops before Penn State included Western Michigan and Vanderbilt. That is a far cry from the likes of Spencer, Pry and even Franklin who all had at least seven different coaching gigs before arriving at Penn State.

"I think staff consistency and recruiting are by far the two biggest issues," Franklin said last month at Fiesta Bowl media day when asked about the keys to sustained success. "You want guys who want to be coordinators one day and guys who want to be head coaches, but you better have the balance on the staff as well because you have other guys with other aspirations."

That's why replacing Gattis would be perhaps Franklin's most challenging hire since arriving at Penn State. Recruiting is built around relationships and no one has more relationships with prospects than those whose job it is is to recruit the impressionable high schoolers, mingle with their parents and produce results that get them excited about the product the recruiter is selling. Penn State's entire staff has helped get the Lions' recruiting up to this high level, making Gattis' departure -- paired with that of running backs coach Charles Huff earlier this offseason who landed 5-star signee Ricky Slade -- a challenging void to fill.

While the Lions put newly hired tight ends coach Tyler Bowen, now their youngest staff member, in the role of offensive recruiting coordinator last week, he'll certainly have big shoes to fill. So will whoever steps in to coach the wide receivers. Gattis churned out one wide receiver after the next and that was after landing some of the top ones on the recruiting trail, much like newly minted five-star Justin Shorter who signed with Penn State in December.

Still, Franklin maintains a loyal group of assistants that will remain the nucleus of this staff. Both coordinators have been with him for multiple stops , while others such as Gattis, Moorhead and Huff spread their wings elsewhere. It's the nature of the business, one where Franklin said since Day 1 he wants to be "fiercely loyal" to his assistants while also wanting what's best for them and their careers.

Last month, Franklin said Spencer told him when he first interviewed back at Vanderbilt he had no desire to one day become a defensive coordinator. Rather, Spencer said he wanted to be the best d-line coach in the country. While those aspirations could've changed between then and now, Pry, the Lions' defensive coordinator and Franklin's closest friend on the staff, has been in a will-he-or-won't-he predicament seemingly every offseason since he arrived. After flirting with various head coaching opportunities Pry has stayed put every time.

"Brent's my guy," Franklin said last month when Pry was in the running for the Louisiana-Lafayette head coaching job. "Whenever you have really good people, people are going to pursue them. I take it as a tremendous compliment for our program."

And that's why this offseason, with as much staff turnover as it's produced, still isn't foreign to Franklin. Two years ago with the program at a crossroad, he promoted Pry, hired Moorhead, landed offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and brought in safeties coach Tim Banks. Three of those four are still around, building off that nucleus of Rahne, Pry and Spencer that's been here since Day 1.

“Every year these guys get approached," Franklin said two years ago when he went through this process before. "Every year they have to make decisions of what’s in the best interests of their families and what’s in the best interests of their families professionally.”

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