For most high school football recruits, choosing a college is no simple task. It’s a decision fraught with stress and uncertainty, one that must keep football and academics in line with potential career aspirations. Many high profile athletes struggle with the process until the very end, sometimes going so far as to withdraw their commitments at the last minute in favor of another suitor.
For Nick Scott, the decision was easy. The Fairfax High senior always knew he wanted to play football at Penn State, the legendary Big Ten program closest to his boyhood home of Lancaster, Pa. His family grew up bleeding blue and white, their loyalty entrenched by Nick’s brother’s god brother, Corey Jones, who played wide receiver for Penn State in the late 90’s.
So when Scott received an official offer from Penn State coach Bill O’Brien in the fall of 2012, you might say he was a little excited.
“I don’t think I stopped smiling until the next week,” said Scott, who racked up 1,582 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns for the Rebels last season.
With a previous offer from Boston College in his pocket and a mounting list of schools starting to look his way, Scott went ahead and verbally committed to Penn State last February, making him just the second player to commit to the Nittany Lions from the Class of 2014. His future seemed clear until something unexpected happened 11 months later.
O’Brien stepped down as Penn State’s coach on Jan. 2 to accept the head coaching position with the Houston Texans. Penn State recruits knew their coach harbored interest in moving to the NFL, but O’Brien promised Scott and others that he would stay at the school at least until his first recruiting class graduated in 2017.
“I was kind of devastated. I was like, Why would he say that to me?” Scott said. “But he called me, and I still have a lot of respect for him. He’s a great guy and I’m glad I got to know him.”
Caught off guard, Scott privately reconsidered his decision. Nebraska and South Florida contacted him to extend offers, and Virginia and William and Mary reached out to Fairfax coach Kevin Simmonds to express their interest. It was a difficult way for Scott to kick off the new year, but his uncertainty wouldn’t last long.
On Jan. 11, Penn State announced the hiring of James Franklin as the school’s new head football coach. The former University of Maryland, College Park. offensive coordinator left Vanderbilt after three years as head coach to sign Penn State’s six-year contract offer.
“They found out who they were going to hire fast, so there wasn’t any prolonged time of uncertainty,” Scott said. “That kind of kept me firm in my commitment.”
Scott’s doubt melted away as he watched Franklin’s press conference. The 41-year-old was animated, passionate and dedicated to the task at hand. He was serious about ingraining a blue-collar mentality into his players, but he was also affable and humble enough not to take himself too seriously. He was the kind of coach Scott wanted to play for.
Scott didn’t judge Franklin solely on his speaking skills, though. He had done his homework on Penn State’s possible replacements, and so had some other members of his family.
“My mom was doing research on like every possibility, so I knew a little bit about him,” Scott said with a laugh. “Him or [University of Miami coach] Al Golden I would have been fine with. As long as it was one of those two, I was good.”
A recent unofficial visit to Penn State didn’t do anything to dissuade Scott’s faith in a coach he had never met.
“Coach Franklin is so different,” Scott said. “I came in the locker room and there was hip-hop blasting. Everybody was trying on jerseys. He had a photo shoot set up, and in one corner he was taking pictures with all the guys. It’s just a different style, a different atmosphere. Coach O’Brien is a great coach and everything, but going through tours I felt like I had to be wearing a suit and tie. So it was real laid back, but at the same time when you get there you know you’re going to get after it.”
Franklin, a gifted recruiter who once served as Maryland’s recruiting coordinator, made his first priority locking down the Class of 2014. He spent this past week sprinting all over the country to ensure that no doubts lingered among his players in the lead-up to Feb. 5, the day known among college football fans everywhere as National Signing Day.
Coming off a visit to a California recruit, Franklin flew into Washington, D.C., on a red-eye last week to see his four DMV recruits. He arrived at the crack of dawn, cleaned himself up, visited Scott and Simmonds at Fairfax High, hustled over to see his other commits — which include DeMatha running back Mark Allen, Wise defensive back Marcus Allen and Briar Woods quarterback Trace McSorley — and then jetted north to continue his whirlwind tour of persuasion.
“He was going 100 miles an hour, full of energy,” Simmonds recalled. “It was 6:30 in the morning and he was ready to rock ‘n roll. He just got out of bed running. He’s just a very energetic, very magnetic guy. You love being around him.”
Franklin’s hustle secured a recruiting class ranked 22nd in the country according to ESPN, an impressive feat for a program still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal that surfaced in 2011. Penn State has 20 scholarship spots for its new class, five more than the number that was part of the NCAA sanctions handed down in July 2012 before the NCAA eased the restriction last September. They can now have 75 scholarship players on the roster this fall, 10 below the maximum.
Franklin received eight oral commitments after taking over for O’Brien, five of them from players who had previously committed to Vanderbilt. Scott was among 19 players to sign his National Letter of Intent to play for Penn State on Wednesday — five other players are already in the mix, having enrolled at the school last month with the start of the spring semester.
Though he played some quarterback during his senior season at Fairfax, Scott was recruited to play his more natural position of running back at Penn State. He aims for immediate playing time but says a redshirt season wouldn’t surprise him. The Nittany Lions are well-stocked at running back with Akeel Lynch (sophomore), Bill Belton (senior) and Zach Zwinak (senior). Some say the 6-foot, 190-pound Scott might be incorporated as a slot receiver or kick returner.
“Academically he’s going to do great, and in the locker room I think he’s such a personable kid,” Simmonds said. “He’s always got a smile on his face and he just enjoys what he does... I think he’s going to be in a position where if not this coming year then in his sophomore year he can make a big impact because he’s going to get in the weight room there. I can’t wait to see what happens when he finishes growing and he gets on a college meal plan.”
Scott isn’t bothered by all the talk about sanctions, among them the one that prevents Penn State from participating in a bowl game next season. If anything he’s now more motivated to don the blue and white, eager to see that his recruiting class drives a path to restored glory.
“That’s one of the biggest reasons why I committed,” Scott said. “The kids in my class coming in, we have a chance to make history. All the stuff that’s happened to Penn State, people thought we were down and out. The senior class from the first year of sanctions, they made sure that Penn State didn’t go down and that people didn’t forget about us. My class’s job is to keep the program moving forward.”