On a hot Sunday morning in late June, Matt Rhule finished up his annual summer football camp and responded to a jab from a fellow Pennsylvania coach.
“Dominate the state” had become Penn State coach James Franklin’s slogan from his inaugural press conference. Rhule responded by saying he wished to “represent the state” instead of dominate it.
Despite Rhule’s separate objective, it seems the chatter hasn’t persisted in his recruiting circles.
“There’s a lot of trash being talked,” Rhule said in his press conference on national signing day. “There’s a lot of things being said, even in Pennsylvania by some of the schools, negative recruiting this, who owns the state and who owns that.”
“It was really nice getting to know these kids and really nice being involved in recruiting being done the right way,” Rhule added. “These are kids that wanted to be here.”
Signing a 20-player class that encompasses nine states, Rhule and his staff headlined a 2015 class consisting of two four-star recruits – New Jersey defensive back Kareem Ali Jr., who committed in July of last year, and Florida running back T.J. Simmons, who signed last Wednesday.
Simmons, ranked No. 17 among running backs in the 2015 class by Rivals.com, decommitted from UCLA last month and squeezed in a visit to Main Campus a week before signing day. The Lakeland, Florida native committed to UCLA as a sophomore before taking a visit, and decommitted as bigger schools got involved.
“I committed without even taking a visit,” Simmons said. “When I did get an opportunity to visit, I decided I didn’t want to be committed while I was taking visits and get a chance to look at my options and weigh them all out.”
Due to a left ankle injury, Simmons missed most of his senior season, but said he is now “100 percent.” He is currently taking part in club lacrosse, along with track & field for his school.
“It was pretty tough sitting out my senior year,” Simmons said. “My team still finished the year pretty well and I had a chance to play a little bit toward the end.”
One of three running backs in Rhule’s class, Simmons hopes to break through a crowd of what could be 10 running backs by training camp.
In addition to Simmons is Millville, New Jersey running back Ryquell Armstead, whose athleticism has caught Rhule’s eye, as he compared Armstead to a former Temple running back now with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.
“Recruiting Ryquell reminds me of recruiting Bernard Pierce,” Rhule said. “Bernard was a local kid, a little bit under the radar, came into the camp and ran extremely fast and was really competitive, and that’s the way Ryquell is. … [Armstead] was the fastest kid in New Jersey at 210 pounds, he came to our camp and ran [a 4.4-second 40-yard dash].”
Armstead hopes to be in the picture from day one, despite the team’s plethora of running backs.
“I want to compete and go hard for the starting spot,” Armstead said. “I feel like coach Rhule loves me. He’s excited just like I am to get there. I can’t wait to get up and there and show him what I’ve got.”
While the Owls have such a large number of backs, Rhule said he doesn’t plan on going as deep down the depth chart for carries as he has in the past.
“I expect [our incoming backs] to come in and compete,” Rhule said. “We want to play with two running backs next year. We always want to have a feature back and a complimentary back. I don’t want to play with three backs. I don’t want to rotate.”
“Those guys in our program have had some time to establish themselves,” Rhule added. “They kind of know what’s expected, and the guys coming in know they have an opportunity to show what they can do. We have enough backs now to find ‘the guy,’ so that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Owls’ running game featured three different running backs with more than 50 carries last season, while junior quarterback P.J. Walker led the team with 106 rushing attempts.
The team’s 1,293 rushing yards on the season ranked No. 115 out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Simmons, who was recruited by schools as high on the totem pole as Florida State and Ohio State, hopes to help reverse the trend as soon as he can.
“I can see myself being an all-down back,” Simmons said. “Just coming in at any time and just making an impact immediately. … Competition-wise, I feel like if I come in there in the summer and just work really hard with the current running backs now, and listen to all the advice they give me, I feel like I can definitely have a shot at starting,” Simmons said.
Amid many last-minute commits and ultimately snatching the highly-touted Simmons away from top-tier programs, Rhule said the program is moving in the right direction with its recruiting ability.
“We’re recruiting with the big dogs,” Rhule said. “All across the country you’re watching some kid as they walk up to the podium saying ‘Can I see the emblem on that hat?’ as he walks in, and that’s what we were doing. … That’s big-time college football, and that’s where we are.”
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejsmitty17