STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State’s final three commitments of the 2017 recruiting class were all on defense, a fitting ending to a successful cycle.
The Nittany Lions signed 21 players, and will finish firmly in the top 20 of the 247Sports composite rankings for the third consecutive season with coach James Franklin and his staff in charge for the full year. Whether Penn State remains at No. 15 in the final ranking could still be determined by a late addition or two elsewhere.
In the final three days, Penn State added a 4-star linebacker, a 3-star defensive tackle and a 4-star cornerback. It was one more prospect at each level of the defense, a group that had already been heavily fortified.
Let’s take a look back now that the final letter of intent, from cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, arrived at Penn State’s football headquarters on Wednesday afternoon. Here are some grades for this Penn State recruiting class:
The group began with a 4-star quarterback, an Elite 11 finalist who became a leader and extra recruiter for the coaching staff. Sean Clifford, the nation’s No. 8 pro-style passer from Cincinnati, helped the Nittany Lions on the recruiting trail but he also has a chance to be a special quarterback.
“He’s a winner,” Franklin said of Clifford while comparing his high school success to current starter Trace McSorley. “He can beat you with his mind and he can beat you with his arm.”
Penn State landed the top offensive lineman in the state of Pennsylvania, CJ Thrope of Pittsburgh Central Catholic. Thorpe is a top-100 player nationally, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, and Franklin raved about his “nasty demeanor” on the football field.
The Nittany Lions, who added four offensive linemen, continue to build depth at a position that was a glaring weakness when Franklin arrived. They also secured three wide receivers, including 4-star prospect KJ Hamler from Pontiac, Mich., and IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Penn State did not sign a tight end. Franklin alluded to wanting someone at every position every year, so that’s a hole in this class. It’s also one of the team’s thinnest positions for 2017, but there are two blue-chip tight ends already committed in the 2018 class.
The Nittany Lions also missed on their top targets at running back before securing Journey Brown of Meadville, Pa., late in the process. He’s a track star, but Franklin thinks he could be a complete back at the college level.
It’s a solid collection of offensive talent, but not quite an elite haul.
This is clearly where the strength of the class lies. Penn State signed 11 4-star prospects, and eight of them will play defense for the Nittany Lions.
Let’s start with the secondary, which is the highest-rated collection of defensive backs Penn State has recruited this century. There are four 4-star prospects, including Lamont Wade, one of the top 50 players in America.
The group includes the top player from Pittsburgh (Wade) and one of the top defensive backs in Michigan (Donovan Johnson from Cass Tech in Detroit). There were three 4-star defensive back recruits on Penn State’s roster after the Rose Bowl and there are more than double that total now.
Penn State’s collection of defensive linemen is also impressive after signing three 4-star prospects, including Fred Hansard, who is the highest-rated defensive tackle (No. 11 in the country) the Nittany Lions have signed since 2001.
Franklin said Yetur Matos, a 4-star defensive end from Northern Virginia, could be the “sleeper” of this class despite his blue-chip rating. He and fellow 4-star defensive end Damion Barber could be bookends for the Nittany Lions’ line in the near future.
Linebacker looked like it might be a weakness in the class after 4-star prospect Dylan Rivers flipped to Virginia Tech, but Penn State rallied and landed 4-star inside linebacker Ellis Brooks on Monday.
Brooks or Brelin Faison-Walden, a 3-star prospect from Greensboro, N.C. who is already on campus, could squeeze onto the depth chart as a true freshman because Penn State still isn’t quite at full strength at the position in the aftermath of NCAA sanctions.
This has the potential to be a fantastic class for Brent Pry’s defense in the coming seasons.
There’s not a lot to quibble over. Not landing a tight end could be a concern next season if Mike Gesicki gets injured. Not adding a highly-touted running back is pretty understandable considering Saquon Barkley is around for at least one more year and Miles Sanders for at least two.
Penn State has now signed 32 blue-chip (4- or 5-star) prospects in the past three seasons. The Nittany Lions are one more cycle at this level or better from having a roster with more than 50 percent of the scholarship players being blue-chip talents. That’s a significant achievement, and the sign of a program that could consistently produce successful seasons like Penn State’s 2016 campaign.
|4-star CB||Lamont Wade*||No. 5||Clairton, Pa.|
|4-star OG||CJ Thorpe||No. 5||Pittsburgh, Pa.|
|4-star QB||Sean Clifford||No. 8 pro-style||Cincinnati, Ohio.|
|4-star DE||Yetur Gross-Matos||No. 5 weak-side||Fredericksburg, Va.|
|4-star DT||Fred Hansard||No. 11||Princeton, N.J.|
|4-star LB||Ellis Brooks||No. 13 middle||Richmond, Va.|
|4-star S||Jonathan Sutherland||No. 22||Ottawa, Ont.|
|4-star CB||Tariq Castro-Fields||No. 34||Upper Marlboro, Md.|
|4-star DE||Damion Barber||No. 15||Harrisburg, Pa.|
|4-star WR||KJ Hamler*||No. 46||Pontiac, Mich.|
|4-star CB||Donovan Johnson||No. 36||Detroit, Mich.|
|3-star LB||Brelin Faison-Walden*||No. 28 outside||Greensboro, N.C.|
|3-star OC||Michael Miranda*||No. 4||Stow, Ohio|
|3-star WR||Cameron Sullivan-Brown||No. 82||Laurel, Md.|
|3-star WR||Mac Hippenhammer||No. 85||Fort Wayne, Ind.|
|3-star OT||Robbie Martin||No. 66||Montvale, N.J.|
|3-star ATH||Brailyn Franklin||No. 60||Haymarket, Va.|
|3-star RB||Journey Brown||No. 54||Meadville, Pa.|
|3-star CB||D.J. Brown||No. 104||Creekside, Ga.|
|3-star DT||Corey Bolds||No. 45||Paterson, N.J.|