STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It’s one thing to go out and aggressively recruit four and five-star prospects. It’s the livelihood of any college football program and Penn State, especially since James Franklin‘s arrival, has successfully done that.
It’s not easy to do so and selling a winning program certainly makes the pitch that much better and makes the prospects much more receptive. But, what the past week proved to a national audience while eight former Nittany Lions tested at the NFL Scouting Combine is that the foundation of this program — the part that is often overlooked by outsiders because weight room workouts themselves don’t pack the Beaver Stadium stands — is certainly on solid footing. That developing talent part — as evidenced by the eye-popping testing numbers and back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games — will be another selling point for Franklin and staff when they head back out on the recruiting trail.
“Let’s face it, Penn State has lit this Combine up,” NFL Network Analyst Mike Mayock said during Monday’s broadcast.
Mayock was right. Beyond Saquon Barkley‘s freakish testing numbers that resulted in him garnering strength comparisons to linemen or Mike Gesicki — who might’ve helped himself become a second-round pick with a 41.5-inch vertical and 4.54-second 40-yard dash — the Lions tested well all the way down to their potential late round and undrafted players. Penn State, with nine top finishes in combine events, three second-place finishes and one third-place finish won the event’s medal count. Barkley and Gesicki combined for 10 of the 13 medals.
Safety Troy Apke, the former Mt. Lebanon track and field standout whose combine invite initially was a bit of a surprise, ran a blistering 4.34-second 40-yard dash, the fastest time among safeties and the fourth best among defensive backs.
“You know why I’m surprised,” a stunned Deion Sanders said during the broadcast. “I can’t say it on TV, but he can run.”
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) March 5, 2018
Cornerback Grant Haley clocked a 4.44-second 40-yard dash that has him trending in the right direction, further backing that the testing numbers Penn State puts out year after year — those ones plastered at the top of the leaderboards in the weight room — are indeed legit. There will be more numbers to come on Penn State’s Pro Day on March 20 when Christian Campbell, DaeSean Hamilton and Jason Cabinda — who opted not to test everything for various reasons — complete all the drills.
Campbell’s numbers could open some eyes as his broad jump and 38-inch vertical were among positional bests at Penn State. And, one of the team’s most explosive athletes, wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, wasn’t even invited to the combine.
Keep in mind this group, with the exception of Barkley, the first wave of Penn State players who trained under strength coach Dwight Galt for four seasons. As evidenced by the results it’s easy to see why Galt’s career has intertwined with Franklin’s and why the strength coach is widely regarded as one of the best in the country.
Galt was at Maryland for eight years while Franklin coached there and then he was with him again at Vanderbilt from 2011-2013. He was quickly brought along to Penn State where Franklin didn’t waste any time explaining why hiring Galt was of the utmost importance.
“(He’s) probably the most important hire we’ve made,” Franklin said in January of 2014 after Galt joined him in State College. “I think that was one of the biggest changes that you saw in our program at Vanderbilt over the last three years is how much bigger, stronger, more athletic, and more explosive we got in a very short period of time.”
Galt worked wonders at Maryland too and since 2003 at the combine only two players who weighed in at 230-plus pounds ran the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds or less and posted verticals of 40 or more inches. Both athletes Vernon Davis (2003) and Barkley of course were trained by Galt.
What Franklin saw from Galt’s numerous strength programs, one that has a philosophy built around year-round training with added focus on the art of recovery while working explosive movements plus strength and power, is something many took note of during the combine as Penn State’s players put on a show. Galt, who per NCAA rules has the most contact with these players because of the year-round training, knew they would.
“In the winter time typically a lot of programs feel that’s the only time they can really strength train and they slack – not slack – but they de-emphasize the movement part,” Galt said last week after putting this current group of players through their final wave of workouts ahead of spring break. “But here I believe that’s really important. Strength and power without the movement is useless so we continue to do that.”
Penn State certainly showed strength and explosive movements throughout the combine as Barkley is now rumored to be well in the mix for the top overall pick while Gesicki helped his stock and so did Haley and Apke. Expect those testing numbers to be part of Penn State’s recruiting pitch moving forward as they now have national pundits talking about their strength and conditioning program and the types of NFL talents they’re churning out.