STATE, COLLEGE, Pa. — While Alabama is celebrating yet another recruiting championship, Penn State currently owns the No. 1 class in the country.
National Signing Day is the unofficial end of a recruiting cycle because the vast majority of prospects in the class have now signed national letters of intent. There is no Terrelle Pryor-esque situation in the 2017 class with a top player waiting past signing day to make his decision.
So that means today, Feb. 2, is unofficially the first day the 2018 recruiting cycle takes center stage. The Nittany Lions currently have seven players committed and are ranked No. 1 on the 247Sports composite team rankings.
That ranking means very little and will likely be forgotten a year from now, but the fast start for 2018 does represent a glimpse of where Penn State would like to be.
“It’s a great jump-start on the class,” said Andy Frank, Penn State’s director of player personnel, on Wednesday. “We feel there are some really good players in that group. We feel they are going to help us build that class into maybe one of the best in the country. Having them early is good. The downside is you have to keep them and you have to hold onto them all the way to the end. We feel we’ve recruited really good kids and really good families that want Penn State for all the right reasons.”
It’s very, very early in the process for most of the prospects in the 2018 class. No team in the country has more than Penn State’s eight commitments after 3-star outside linebacker/safety Charlie Katshir committed Thursday afternoon. The individual player rankings will fluctuate, some wildly, based on summer camps, senior seasons, all-star games, etc.
For now, though, Penn State has seven of the top 290 players in the nation committed, including 5-star defensive end Micah Parsons from Harrisburg, Pa. He’s a good example of how early/fluid it still is — Parsons is committed to Penn State but has released a top-six list of schools he’s considering and a “final decision” date as opposed to a commitment date.
Penn State’s 2018 group also includes two of the top seven tight ends in the country, including No. 1 Zack Kuntz from Camp Hill, Pa. There is the No. 3 player in New Jersey (wide receiver Justin Shorter), the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback (Justin Fields of Kennesaw, Ga.) and potentially this coaching staff’s first addition in four years from Texas — defensive back and legacy Isaiah Humphries.
“Preseason rankings are ridiculous,” coach James Franklin said. “Recruiting rankings right now are ridiculous. All that matters is come signing day, what are you able to do. How do you develop the players once they’re in your program? Preseason rankings in terms of your football team and where we rank before the season starts, none of those things really matter.
“We got a lot of work to do in a lot of areas. We have made great progress, but we still got a long ways to go. For us to catch the programs that we view that we’re competing against, we still got a long ways to go in a lot of different areas.”
This is the year for Penn State to truly make some substantial progress. The Nittany Lions won a Big Ten championship in 2016 and played in one of the most exciting Rose Bowls of all time.
Penn State will also return 16 starters, including nine from one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, and likely open the 2017 season as a top-10 team and possibly a top-5 club.
Franklin said signing day was the first since the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis that he didn’t have the football from the league championship trophy with him. When he posed with recruits for in-home visits in January, he held that football.
While the 2016 success had some effect on late-deciding 2017 recruits, the 2018 cycle is where Penn State can really capitalize. If Penn State is ever going to sign a recruiting class again that rivals the likes of what Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia just produced, this is the chance for this coaching staff.
“I think you have to be patient now and more selective in the process,” Frank said. “The flow of recruiting is ever-changing. June and July are historically big commitment months. Our 2018 class is fairly big right now. A lot of that hopefully has to do with our success and our future here. We have to be in some ways more disciplined, because you’re offering less people and being more selective. There are fewer players out there that are our caliber than there were three years ago and our recruiting rankings sort of speak to that.”
Penn State has finished the past three seasons — the first three full recruiting cycles for Franklin and his staff — at 15th, 20th and 15th in the 247Sports composite team rankings. The highest the Nittany Lions have finished in the past 15 years is No. 7 in 2006, and that proved to be a great class full of impact players in the late 2000s.
Significant challenges ahead
Franklin touched on one of the big challenges for Penn State to compete on a national level for a top-10 class on Wednesday — geography. Not in the sense that such a high proportion of blue-chip talent is available only in the southern areas of the country. Ohio State and Michigan have proven that geographical challenge can be overcome.
What Franklin was talking about is specific to State College. It’s not close to a major airport. While Franklin might fly on a private jet out of State College to see a key recruit, Penn State isn’t likely to start flying assistant coaches around the country on private aircraft, though maybe that would be a way for Penn State to combat the challenge. That would take increased fundraising and behind-the-scenes networking with boosters that isn’t happening at even Ohio State or Michigan.
It’s not going to be easy. College football’s power structure makes upward mobility very difficult, and that’s even more evident in recruiting.
The rise of Maryland with DJ Durkin on the recruiting trail will make it tougher for Penn State to travel south and plunder recruits from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area. Chris Ash could help Rutgers return to respectability in New Jersey.
There are signs that Franklin’s staff is increasing its national recruiting footprint. Donovan Johnson and KJ Hamler were two 4-star prospects from the Detroit area in the 2017 class after Penn State had missed out on all of its top targets in Michigan the past few years.
When Penn State coaches go to high schools in Detroit moving forward, Johnson and Hamler are now another selling point. Maybe Humphries can be the same in Texas.
Clemson didn’t need top-5 recruiting classes to win the national title, but it did need a consistent stream of blue-chip talent. Dabo Swinney built the Tigers into a national title contender methodically, with every class from 2011-16 ranked between No. 9 and No. 17 after years of being an afterthought on signing day.
Penn State has added 32 blue-chip prospects out of 65 signed players in the past three years, and the Nittany Lions could push that ratio past 50 percent after the 2018 cycle.
“You’re always looking to get better players every day,” defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith said. “Recruiting-wise, you look and we’re not No. 1 so there is always room to improve on or to move up the ladder.”
At least for today, Penn State actually is No. 1. Remaining there for the next 12 months might not happen, but the 2018 recruiting cycle is a gigantic opportunity for Franklin and his staff.