WILKES-BARRE — It hasn’t even been five full months on the job for James Franklin and his staff. But Northeastern Pennsylvania has already made an impact on them.
Tuesday was Franklin’s second trip to the region this month as Genetti’s downtown hosted the latest leg of the Penn State Coaches Caravan.
Franklin had already been impressed by the strong turnout last week when the Nittany Lions new coach hit the Scranton area, something that carried over to the main ballroom at Genetti’s, which hosted roughly 400 people.
“I’m a very, very passionate, emotional guy,” Franklin said. “So it’s hard to explain what it’s like when you care about something so deeply — and then you look out into the audience, and you can see in people’s faces that they care just as much about it as you do. That’s a powerful experience, and it’s hard to explain.
“That’s a unique experience. I don’t think there’s too many times in life that we experience that.”
Until recently, Penn State had gone through a drought when it came to players from District 2 on the roster. When Eugene Lewis (Wyoming Valley West/Meyers) officially joined the Lions in 2012, he became the first scholarship player from the WVC on the team since the 2004 season.
He’ll be joined on this year’s edition by Nyeem Wartman (Valley View) and incoming freshman Noah Beh (Scranton Prep) to represent the region. Walk-ons Zach Ladonis (Berwick) and Brian Tomasetti (Old Forge) are also set to return.
As for the future, new quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne is charged with recruiting Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties, and he spent much of Tuesday making trips to high schools in both places before stopping at Genetti’s.
Rahne, who has recruited all over the country for multiple universities, said NEPA has stood out to him.
“I think that this is really the first time I’ve ever really recruited a place … where the kids grow up, and their dream school is the place you’re at,” Rahne said. “I never had that. We didn’t have that at (Vanderbilt). So it’s been good.
“You’ve got a lot of people that have a lot of passion for it and kids that blatantly come up and tell you, ‘Hey, that’s my dream school. My parents went there, my grandparents went there, my aunts and uncles. I’ve been to 30 games.’ It’s been interesting. It’s been awesome. It’s something I haven’t been used to. It recharges you a little bit when you see all these people you’re recruiting have so much passion for the place you’re at.”
By NCAA rule, Rahne isn’t allowed to mention potential recruits by name, but was able to give his general impression of WVC and LFC players and coaches.
“The guys in this area are really good football coaches,” Rahne said. “It’s a great area. I really enjoy it, and I just like the people. Blue-collar, hard-working people. The kids are hard-working. They’re tough. I think they’re coached well, in terms of not only schemes, but fundamentals.”
For now, the spotlight will squarely be on Lewis.
With Allen Robinson gone a year early to the NFL, Lewis will be the early candidate to replace him as quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s top target.
Franklin’s relationship with Lewis goes back to the former’s days as an offensive coordinator at Maryland. Franklin said Tuesday he believes he was one of, if not the first coach to offer Lewis a scholarship.
“We’re going to need him to step up big time with Allen Robinson and all of the production he had leaving us,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be important that somebody takes that role.
“He’s got tremendous leaping ability. He’s got massive hands, strong hands when it comes to catching the ball. He’s gotta work on his top-end speed, he’s gotta work on his quickness and his route-running. We need him to be more of a complete wide receiver that we can use in a lot of different roles. But he made great progress this spring and I know he’s excited going into the summer.”