Lots of places rank recruiting classes on National Signing Day, but what about after that? This series is going to look back at Penn State’s recruiting classes and what they accomplished in a five-year window after arriving in State College.
When Malik Golden committed to Penn State on Aug. 24, 2011, the Nittany Lions were coming off a disappointing 7-6 season but had won two conference titles and 51 games in the five previous years.
After the worst five-year stretch in the school’s history since the 1930s, Penn State rebounded in the second half of the last decade and was among the top programs in the nation again. Golden made his decision before his senior season began, but he had no idea how many times he would need to commit to the university in the near future.
Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class was filled with players who faced the same tough choices. The horrific details of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal broke late in the 2011 season and put the program, university and community in turmoil.
By the time Golden and his classmates were able to sign a letter of intent, Penn State was on its third head coach in four months and faced an uncertain future. Golden reconsidered his options after the scandal broke but stuck with Penn State on signing day.
He and his classmates had the opportunity to leave the program when the NCAA sanctions were announced before they had played a college game. The penalties, for a freshman football player, were harsh.
A four-year bowl ban meant possibly never playing in a postseason game, and the scholarship reductions meant possibly playing on some bad teams. Not only was every player on the team allowed to transfer without penalty up until the start of the 2013 season, other schools were allowed to recruit them again.
Golden and most of his classmates could have left before the 2012 season, or after it. Most, like Golden, chose to stay.
Eventually the bowl ban was reduced and a small group of 2012 recruits become key leaders as fifth-year seniors on a Big Ten champion. Golden, Brian Gaia, Nyeem Wartman-White, Evan Schwan, Derek Dowrey and Wendy Laurent were part of three bowl teams when it seemed back in July 2012 like there might not be any.
Given the scandal, looming sanctions and limited time to cobble together a class, Bill O’Brien’s first collection of freshmen at Penn State was not a highly-ranked bunch. Still, the class has produced three NFL draft picks, a fourth undrafted free agent who saw playing time as a rookie and could add a couple more players in NFL camps this fall.
It also produced Big Ten champions, something that seemed quite improbable on National Signing Day five years ago. Here’s a look back at Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class and what they accomplished in Happy Valley.
Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class
247Sports composite rank: No. 46 (No. 8 in the Big Ten)
5-year record: 40-24, one Big Ten title
Bowl games: 2014 Pinstripe Bowl (W, 31-30 vs. Boston College); 2016 Gator Bowl (L, 31-24 vs. Georgia); 2017 Rose Bowl (L, 52-49 vs. Southern Cal)
All-America honors: None
All-Big Ten honors: Austin Johnson (2015); Evan Schwan (2016)
NFL draft picks: Jesse James (2015, sixth round); Austin Johnson (2016, second round); Jordan Lucas (2016, sixth round)
Geno Lewis, WR, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Position: No. 21
State: No. 4 in Pennsylvania
National: No. 156
Lewis had 55 catches for 751 yards as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, but Chris Godwin’s emergence in 2015 pushed him down the pecking order for pass targets. He spent the 2016 season at Oklahoma as a graduate transfer and finished with 32 receptions for the Big 12 champions.
Head of the class
Austin Johnson, DT, Galloway, N.J.
Position: No. 66 defensive tackle
State: No. 24 in New Jersey
National: No. 979
It might be ‘Linebacker U’ in State College, but in 2015 it was ‘DLU’ for the Nittany Lions. Johnson, Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel all became all-conference players and NFL draft picks. The fourth member of that starting defensive line, Garrett Sickels, will join them in the NFL next season.
Johnson had nine tackles for loss and two sacks in his first two seasons, but racked up 15 TFLs and 6.5 sacks in 2015. Nassib earned more national recognition, but Johnson became the first of the trio off the board in the draft, going in the second round.
Brent Wilkerson, Clinton, Md.
Position: No. 20 strong-side defensive end
State: No. 10 in Maryland
Wilkerson became a tight end for Penn State but never had much of an impact. He had eight catches combined in his sophomore and junior seasons but was kicked off the team in April 2016 and was eventually sentenced to five years probation after pleading guilty to an indecent assault charge.
Jordan Lucas, New Rochelle, N.Y.
Position: No. 88 safety
State: No. 7 in Massachusetts (Worcester Academy)
Lucas was one of four players in the class ranked outside the top 1,000 in the 247Sports composite that became key contributors for the Nittany Lions, along with Golden Schwan and Trevor Williams. He played a little as a freshman in 2012 and then became a fixture in the Penn State secondary for three years, collecting 179 tackles and 25 pass breakups from 2013-15, before the Miami Dolphins made him a sixth-round pick.
Of the 20 prospects in the 2012 class, 40 percent had little-to-no impact. Given the circumstances, that’s not really a surprising total. Finding at least four future NFL players in those circumstances, now that is a surprise.
Lewis and Akeel Lynch played well at times before taking the graduate transfer route. A couple of guys (Laurent and Dowrey) played less as James Franklin’s staff infused more talent on the roster.
Those fifth-year seniors were plenty valuable, both on and off the field, in 2016. They’ll be remembered as fan favorites at alumni reunions and 2017 Big Ten championship celebrations for years to come.