Penn State is hardly alone as a college football program that preaches the importance of establishing a family-centric culture, but this collective effort continues to make a genuine impact on prospects. Brandon Smith, a 5-star linebacker recruit, provided another example on May 21 when he verbally committed to the Nittany Lions.
“It basically felt like a family reunion every time we stepped on campus. That really stood out to us,” Smith told Land of 10. “There’s a close bond up there, and that’s definitely something we were looking for.”
Us. We. These are words the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Louisa County (Mineral, Va.) High School standout uses often when discussing his widespread recruitment.
Smith, who received more than 25 scholarship offers by the end of his junior season, recently completed an incredibly comprehensive search for the ideal college fit. He typically traveled with at least three or four family members on dozens of university visits, and the Smiths consider that a small group.
“The main thing is, we’ve done our homework,” his father, Rico, said.
Last weekend, Brandon returned to Penn State for an official visit. It was his first time on campus since joining the Nittany Lions’ 2019 recruiting class and as good a reason as any to celebrate with a family affair.
Brandon was accompanied by Rico; his mother, Cynthia; younger brother, Jordan; Aunt Vonetta; cousins Natalie and Tyson; and a trio of uncles — JJ, Matt and Popeye. His grandparents previously joined him in State College for the 2017 Lasch Bash barbecue.
“We attacked this whole process in a way I think coaches at some of these schools are not used to,” Rico said. “Every visit we went on — both parents, brother, uncle and sometimes more people. We did that on purpose. We wanted everybody’s perspective and input. They’ve had input on his life to this point and this is an especially important time for him.”
At its most basic, a college commitment comes down to individual choice. But there’s nothing basic about a 17-year-old maintaining consistent communication with coaches such as James Franklin, Jimbo Fisher and Urban Meyer.
Thus, the extra sets of eyeballs were a big part of the process.
“It was very important for them to see what I see, and also stuff I didn’t see, during visits,” Brandon said. “The big upside was hearing their thoughts about positives and negatives at each school, because then I could look at things from different views.”
Return car rides home provided an opportunity to evaluate the pros and cons of each experience. Those discussions would sometimes essentially eliminate a school from the equation or, conversely, strengthen the case of a contender.
Between April 3 and April 20 — a period that proved to be the final stretch of his recruitment — the Smiths journeyed to Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Texas A&M. Though the family envisioned a potential September announcement ceremony, Brandon determined they’d done enough research to make a well-informed decision.
“When the evaluation period came this spring, it was a lot of the same old things — the visits, the texts, all that,” Rico said. “Brandon was basically like, ‘We’ve been everywhere that we need to go. We’ve seen all we need to see. I think it’s time to close the chapter on this.’”
While surveying an abundance of options — Rico explained it came down to about four or five schools — Brandon again focused on family.
“The smiles on their faces every time we were at Penn State meant a lot,” he said.
Let’s face it. An unfortunate reality of college football recruiting is that many staffs aggressively sell a future they can’t possibly promise in earnest.
No one truly knows how a high school athlete will handle the transition to college, on and off the field. There’s zero chance an entire staff will remain intact for a four-year span. Players’ responses to injuries vary, and the same can be said regarding their reaction to a lost positional battle.
“Everyone tries to paint the best picture they possibly can, but we’ve always tried not to get caught up in too much other than what’s best for Brandon,” Rico said.
The Smiths did their best to maintain that tunnel vision, even while sharing meals with national champions, experiencing the grand spectacle of a game day at various universities and listening to long-term plans that would result in NFL fortunes for the family’s oldest son.
After all the diligence, Brandon felt at peace with picking Penn State. He approached his parents with this verdict in late April.
“From Day 1, Penn State has always made a great impression on all of us,” Rico said. “Relationships are so important, and we’ve established a great one with them. They’ve done a good job with being consistent.”
Rico and Cynthia encouraged Brandon to take a few days to digest the decision to confirm his feelings. Meanwhile, they again implemented what Rico refers to as a “village” approach.
“We talked among ourselves as a family, then got input from Brandon’s mentors,” he said. “They’d already been a part of the process. Whenever we went on visits, we made sure everyone in his support system knew what was going on and where things might be headed.”
According to Rico, this collection of mentors includes Brandon’s uncles, close friends of the family, his coaches, former Division I basketball and football players, retired NFL players and successful businessmen. Upon learning the news of his impending commitment plan, their responses were unanimously positive.
“Everybody supports his decision because they know the history, they know what kind of kid he is and they know what situation fits best for him,” Rico said.
So, 13 months after Brandon landed a Nittany Lions offer during an April 2017 meeting in Franklin’s office, he declared intentions to attend Penn State.
Last November, following a Penn State practice session, Franklin discussed the personal impact of a prospect’s pledge that goes far beyond the impact on his roster.
“I equate everything back to my own kids,” he said. “I think about me trying to pick a kindergarten for my daughters or me trying to pick an elementary school. It’s a huge decision, let alone college. So I take it as the ultimate sign of respect when a young man and his parents decide to choose us, Penn State, Penn State football, our coaches, our players.
“To me, the biggest compliment you can get is someone saying, ‘Look, I’ve spent 18 years investing in my son, and I’m handing him over to you to continue to build on the foundation that we’ve laid.'”
After spending thousands of miles on the road, conversing with countless college coaches and players and frequently bringing family members and mentors into their huddle, the Smiths are all-in with the Nittany Lions.
Brandon, who totaled 192 tackles — 35 for loss — and 16 sacks the last two seasons, will wrap up his prep career this fall before enrolling at Penn State in January.
Considering the history of his recruitment, Brandon’s family might require its own row in Beaver Stadium these next few years. The village is headed to Happy Valley.
Thank God for allowing the Smith family to be a part of the Penn State family. Home is where the heart is🙏🏾 ❤️#WeAre @coachjfranklin @CoachPry_LBU @knnysndrs @brand0n_smith12 pic.twitter.com/V4tkZFIpiF
— Rico Smith (@rico06_06) June 11, 2018