Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, and a population shift has made it tougher for Big Ten schools. Southern migration has left fewer elite college football prospects in the conference’s footprint. No state in “Big Ten Country” produces enough prospects for the local school to thrive, so venturing into rival territory to secure more players is critical.
Land of 10 looked at how Big Ten schools have recruited in the states with the most talent — Florida, Texas, California and Georgia. Now it’s time to dive deep into how the league’s members recruit in each other’s backyards.
First up was Ohio, a state dominated by the Buckeyes but with enough talent for other league schools to enjoy. Next up is Pennsylvania, one of the giants in producing elite high school football players.
A state in flux
The story of high school football in Pennsylvania has been told often. Once one of the sport’s great sources of elite talent — the state is second to Texas in producing Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees — the loss of industrial jobs and a population drain has left the Keystone State behind states such as Texas, Florida, California and even its neighbor to the west, Ohio.
There are still plenty of potential college football players in the state, but the pool of blue-chip (4- and 5-star) prospects isn’t consistently as strong as if was in the glory days. Neither is the overall depth.
Still, Big Ten programs have looked eastward (and north and west for the newbies, Maryland and Rutgers) to Pennsylvania to collect talent.
Here’s a breakdown of all the prospects signed by non-Penn State schools from the Big Ten in the past 10 recruiting cycles. The average rank for each signee and number of top-15 prospects comes from the 247Sports composite.
|School||Total prospects||Average rank||Top 15 prospects|
The two Power 5 programs in the state — Penn State and Pittsburgh — have both dealt with issues this decade that hurt recruiting.
Penn State’s status as a recruiting power had already slipped by 2009. Then the child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky broke in 2011, stunning the nation and leaving the Nittany Lions with a litany of NCAA sanctions.
Pitt’s problems were not comparable, but they did lead to recruiting trouble. Counting guys with the interim tag, the Panthers had six different head coaches in a span of 380 days.
Mike Haywood lasted 16 days and was fired on Jan. 1, 2011, because of a domestic violence arrest. Todd Graham lasted about 11 months, before he left for a “dream come true” at Arizona State. That type of coaching uncertainty is bound to have a negative effect on teenagers and their parents.
From 2011-13, there were 30 blue-chip prospects in the state of Pennsylvania, an average of 10 per year. In each of those three recruiting cycles, eight different schools signed a blue-chip Pennsylvania prospect.
The following year, 2014, there were seven blue-chip prospects, and they all signed with different schools. It was the definition of “open season” for out-of-state programs.
From 2008-17, there have been a total of 97 blue-chip recruits in Pennsylvania. A breakdown of where they signed is below, but Penn State signed only three from 2011-14.
Pitt signed eight between the 2008 and 2009 classes, but hasn’t really recovered. The Panthers have signed just 10 in the past eight cycles.
|11 schools||Tied with 1|
‘Dominate the state’
Despite Penn State’s recent mixed results, coach James Franklin went for bold statements at his introductory press conference in 2014. The phrase “dominate the state” of Pennsylvania was one of the big takeaways from that day.
Franklin and his staff backed up that declaration with the 2015 class, his first full cycle in charge at Penn State. The Nittany Lions nabbed 6 of the top 7 players and 9 of the top 15 in the Keystone State that year, including Saquon Barkley, John Reid and Ryan Bates.
The new staff and newfound success in 2016 have made it tougher for Big Ten rivals to pluck elite kids from Pennsylvania. Penn State has signed 12 of the 27 blue-chip prospects in the past three cycles. Notre Dame and Pitt signed three each, and no other school has landed more than one.
Michigan State took advantage of downturns on the field at Michigan and Penn State. The Spartans have signed three blue-chip players from Pennsylvania — Demetrius Cox, Damien Terry and Montae Nicholson. All were signed between 2012 and 2014.
Rutgers and Maryland have signed lots of players from Pennsylvania, but not lots of elite ones. The Scarlet Knights snared five top-15 players from the state from 2009-14, including quarterback Tom Savage and running back Robert Martin. They didn’t have any top-20 signees in the past three classes.
The Terps have gone into the Keystone State on many occasions to find quarterbacks, and during the early part of the 2000s (another down period for Penn State), Ralph Friedgen and his staff came north and found some players. One member of that staff was a young wide receivers coach named James Franklin.
Rutgers sticks primarily to the eastern side of the state, and that skews the numbers for where Big Ten prospects in Pennsylvania come from a little. Here’s the breakdown of the totals from the past 10 recruiting classes:
Take out the Rutgers players, and it’s 42-36 in favor of the western side of the state, with eight prospects from central Pennsylvania. Minnesota has signed only eastern Pennsylvania players, but four of the six Golden Gophers recruits from the state in the past 10 years came from the same junior college — Lackawanna CC in Scranton.
Iowa hasn’t done very well near Pittsburgh, which is surprising considering that is where coach Kirk Ferentz grew up and played high school football. Michigan and Ohio State have done well, especially before Franklin arrived in State College.
When Miles Sanders chose Penn State, it was a huge deal for several reasons. Sanders was the best player in the state and in Pittsburgh, and the Nittany Lions had gone years without signing the player with that distinction.
Sanders also was a 5-star prospect. Between Justin King in 2005 and Sanders in 2016, there were 8 5-star prospects in Pennsylvania. Penn State didn’t sign any of them.
Ohio State landed 3, including mega-prospect Terrelle Pryor in 2008. He chose the Buckeyes over Penn State and Oregon, and the following year 3 of the top 12 players in the state — all from Pittsburgh — joined him in Columbus.
One was Pryor’s former teammate. The other two played at Gateway High School, which is where King played and King’s father, Terry Smith, coached.
Flash forward to 2016. Smith is now on Franklin’s staff and is one of his key recruiters. Penn State lands Sanders. The Nittany Lions land the top player in Pittsburgh, Lamont Wade, the next year.
Now it’s time for the 2018 class. Micah Parsons is the No. 3 player in the country and a 5-star defensive end from Harrisburg. He’s committed to Penn State, but Urban Meyer and Ohio State remain in hot pursuit.
The last 5-star prospect from Harrisburg went to Ohio State (Noah Spence, in 2012). Spence was likely going to end up at Penn State, but that changed when Ohio State hired Urban Meyer in November 2011.
Franklin has succeeded at keeping more Pennsylvania talent at home, but Parsons will be a major test to see if the Nittany Lions can ward off the Buckeyes, who happen to employ former Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, one of the best in the nation at the position.
Just as it is in Ohio, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are the most likely Big Ten schools to sign elite players in Pennsylvania. The rest of the league had some success when Penn State was down, but now it might be forced to battle with ACC and AAC programs for the second tier of talent.
That group will still produce great players, though. Ohio State’s Malik Hooker was a 3-star prospect and the No. 8 player in Pennsylvania in his class, and he’s about to become a top-10 pick in the NFL draft. Alex Hornibrook wasn’t a top-30 player in the state his senior year, but he could be a four-year starter at quarterback for Wisconsin.
It’s not quite like the golden years, but finding players in Pennsylvania is still critical for recruiting success for many Big Ten programs.