Franklin's Penn State staff already clicking

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Terry Smith made a visit to the University of Maryland with some of his Gateway High School football players. It was 2005 or 2006. He met an assistant coach at Maryland, James Franklin, and Franklin proved to be as interested in Smith as he was the players.

Smith had what Franklin calls a "presence." At the time, Franklin kept a list of people he wanted to know better, guys he knew he would like working with if the opportunity ever arose. He added Smith's name.

Several years later, he has Smith -- and eight other assistants, who were officially introduced Friday at Penn State. Many of them are connections from Franklin's past, all aiming to bind themselves with the Penn State community.

"You guys are going to find out quickly that I am a fiercely loyal person," Franklin said.

Seven of his nine assistants -- defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, offensive coordinator John Donovan, linebackers coach Brent Pry, wide receivers coach Josh Gattis, offensive line coach Herb Hand, quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne and defensive line coach Sean Spencer -- came directly from Vanderbilt, and special teams coach Charles Huff worked at Vanderbilt in 2011. Smith, who will be cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator, is the lone coach who hasn't worked with Franklin.

He never expected to be in this situation, to coach at his alma mater. Smith said he expected to be at Gateway forever. "I didn't think it would be possible to coach here. When the opportunity came up, I jumped at it."

Huff and Donovan know Franklin from Maryland. Rahne coached with Franklin at Kansas State. Pry was a graduate assistant at East Stroudsburg when Franklin played there. Others, like Shoop, an Oakmont native, became connected with Franklin when he started at Vanderbilt.

At the end of 2010, Shoop was the defensive coordinator for William & Mary. He made a joke to his friend, then-Maryland assistant Don Brown: "I said, 'Get me an interview with Franklin, and I'll get the job.' "

They met at a coaches convention in early 2011 in Dallas for an interview -- and Shoop got the job.

Shoop looks at the Penn State staff and sees a group that complements Franklin's strengths and helps protect his weaknesses.

"We all get along so well," Shoop said. "That's our secret sauce: our chemistry."

Because of recruiting obligations, the assistants and Franklin have spent little time evaluating the current team. They said they aren't sure about the finer points of their strategies. For instance, Franklin has not decided yet if he'll call plays or leave it to Donovan like he did at Vanderbilt. Shoop said the team will recruit the best players and athletes and tailor the defensive system to its personnel. As for a depth chart, Franklin said competition is wide open and that his spring and summer depth charts will be based on seniority.

No such uncertainty was directed toward the importance of Pennsylvania. The assistants and Franklin have already spent most of the past two weeks recruiting, and Franklin's "Dominate the State" motto from his introductory news conference has already appeared on T-shirts.

Franklin, Shoop, Smith and Spencer have strong ties to Pennsylvania, as does Pry, to an extent. He was born in Altoona and lived there until he was 1, spending the rest of an itinerant childhood with his father who coached football throughout the East. He still has four aunts in Altoona, along with several nieces, nephews and cousins.

Through them, he has long realized the importance of Penn State. And he wants to keep it that way.

"When you have family that lived in this state their entire lives, if you recognize it, you know what this program means," Pry said. "And how much they look forward to ballgames on the weekend and how much it means to be associated with Penn State football."

Mark Dent:, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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